Friday, December 15, 2006

Obama on Obama

By Rick Pearson for the Chicago Tribune

On the cusp of a historic decision over whether to run for the White House, Sen. Barack Obama said Thursday that he believed he would be a "viable candidate" for president who could move the nation beyond the generational politics that have defined the last 40 years.

"I wouldn't run if I didn't think I could win," Obama (D-Ill.) said in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview with the Tribune editorial board in which the senator articulated a rationale for his potential candidacy, confidence in his ability to win and an assessment of potential opponents--both Democratic and Republican.

Obama said he would reveal his decision in January, after a two-week family vacation that returns him to his roots in Hawaii, setting an extraordinary arc for a politician who a little more than two years ago was a state senator toiling in Springfield.

"Obviously, I find myself at an interesting moment in time," said Obama, 45, who has ignited a stunning level of excitement nationwide with the prospects of his candidacy. At the same time, Obama said he viewed hype over his potential candidacy as "transitory" and not something that would dictate his decision.

He said he had no real concerns about his ability to put together a staff and raise the tens of millions of dollars he would need to wage a campaign against his potential opponents, including Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

But he said he would have to weigh seriously the burdens that a campaign would place on his family, with his wife and two young daughters, making sure they would not "unduly suffer" from the hothouse atmosphere a White House run would create.

"Do I have something that is sufficiently unique to offer to the country that it is worth putting my family through a presidential campaign?" he said. "Politically, I think I would be a viable candidate. So that's a threshold question and I wouldn't run if I didn't think I could win."

His best-selling book, demands for him to campaign for other Democrats during the recent midterm elections and the remarkable attention he has commanded in appearances in states with early nominating contests have combined to quickly thrust Obama into the upper tier of Democratic presidential contenders.

He conceded that he never has been through anything approaching the level of scrutiny that a presidential campaign would bring on him, his family and almost anyone who has been associated with him.

He said his two books, the first an autobiography written when he was in his late 30s and the second a more policy-oriented book, offer much detail about who he is and his views on issues.

Beyond `paper resume'

Asked how he would address the issue of his relative lack of experience, Obama said he thought that the campaign itself--how he managed it, his position on issues and his framing of a vision for the country--would answer the question. "That experience question would be answered at the end of the campaign," he said.

"The test of leadership in my mind is not going to be what's on a paper resume," Obama said. Vice President Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, and departing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "had the best resume on paper of any foreign policy team and the result has been what I consider to be one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in our history," he said.

Should Obama seek the Democratic nomination, he would face a large field, many with much longer resumes than Illinois' junior senator. But in three national polls released this week, Obama has leapfrogged many of those contenders and put himself in a position to be an alternative to Clinton, who, like Obama, has not declared her candidacy.

Obama said he was not concerned about being able to compete either in fundraising or in staffing should he enter the race.

"I don't want it to sound like raising $50 million to $60 million is easy," he said. "It's hard, but I think it's something that we could do."

Though he was born in 1961, Obama cast himself as the face of a post-Baby Boomer generation not fundamentally shaped by Vietnam and the culture conflicts of the 1960s. He said he could "help turn the page in ways that other candidates can't do."

Sounding very much like a candidate, Obama called Clinton, 59, a "tough, disciplined, smart, intelligent public servant." But, compared to Clinton, he maintained he was able to look at "some issues differently as a consequence of being of a slightly different generation."

When asked his assessment of Clinton, Obama said, "I think she'd be a capable president.

"She has gone through some battles that, in some cases unfairly, have created a perception about her that is different from how I am perceived," he said.

Obama said, however, that he had no interest in being what he called "the un-Hillary"--a reference to serving as a standard-bearer for Democrats looking for an alternative to Clinton.

As for Republicans, Obama said he placed Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the same position Clinton holds among Democrats, with great name recognition and resources and the ability to sew up much of the party establishment. But he also said he considered Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney an "attractive candidate," though he said Romney was "making a mistake in trying to look more conservative than he may be" to gain core conservative support.

Run against McCain

Speaking of a potential matchup with McCain, Obama said he was under no illusions about how a GOP presidential campaign would be run against him.

"War hero against snot-nosed rookie," Obama said.

The first-term Illinois senator said he consulted earlier this week with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley on a potential presidential bid but declined to discuss specifics.

Obama acknowledged "it was stupid" of him to get involved in the purchase almost one year ago of a strip of property adjoining his $1.65 million home from Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who owned a vacant lot next door. Rezko, a political insider and fundraiser, was indicted in October on charges of trying to extort campaign donations and kickbacks from firms seeking state business. Rezko has pleaded not guilty.

"I am the first one to acknowledge that it was a boneheaded move for me to purchase this 10-foot strip from Rezko, given that he was already under a cloud of concern," Obama said. "I will also acknowledge that from his perspective, he no doubt believed that by buying the piece of property next to me that he would, if not be doing me a favor, it would help strengthen our relationship."

On the same day that Obama and his wife closed on their home, Rezko's wife, Rita, closed on the $625,000 vacant lot next door. Both lots had been part of the same estate, but the owner listed them as separate parcels.

Obama said he has known Rezko for 20 years and "he had never asked me for anything. I've never done any favors for him."

"There was no sense of betrayal of the public trust here," Obama said.


The decision:

"Somebody was saying to a friend of mine, `Oh, he can't back out now. He'll look like a chump, you know.' And that's not how I feel. Look, if I come back in January and say I've made an assessment that I will benefit from serving longer in the Senate and I've got young kids, maybe some people would be disappointed, but to me that's a live option."

Why run:

"First of all, it requires some megalomania. It's kind of crazy. ...

"What I at least think about is, whether through luck or happenstance or serendipity or convergences between my biography and events, do I have a particular ability to bring the country together around a pragmatic, common-sense agenda for change that probably has a generational element to it as well?"

Experience factor:

"I think that experience question would be answered during the course of the campaign. Either at the end of that campaign, people would say, `He looked good on paper but the guy was kind of way too green' or at the end of the campaign they say, `He's run a really strong campaign and we think he's got something to say and we think he could lead us.'"

On Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton:

"If I run, it is not because I'm running against Hillary Clinton. I have no interest in being the un-Hillary. I think she'd be a capable president. ... There's no doubt that I probably look at some issues differently as a consequence of being of a slightly different generation than she does."

On Sen. John McCain:

"Look, if it's John McCain ... I don't think you need a lot of imagination to figure out how they would run that campaign. `We live in dangerous times. Terrorism's looming. We need a battle-tested leader and that's John McCain.' I think that's how they present it."
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