Is Barack Obama a Lightweight? (Yes, but in a good way)

In her NY Times column today, Maureen Dowd notes the incipient effort of some conservatives to discredit Senator Barack Obama by noting that not only is his last name a mere one letter different from “Osama,” but his middle name is Hussein. Dowd quotes Hussein-dropper Ed Rogers as denying that he was trying to link Obama to Saddam: “The context was, this guy’s a lightweight. Never have I seen so much swoon for so little biography.”

Lightweight? The guy was President of the Harvard Law Review. Although I haven’t been in touch with him in years, Obama was a year behind me in law school, and we took an advanced constitutional law seminar together. I have a hard time naming someone who had broader intellectual range or better judgment. To be sure, great academic minds have sometimes done poorly in public office. That’s the take-home point of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. And it’s clear from the context that Rogers meant that Obama’s national political experience renders him a lightweight, not that Obama isn’t super-smart.

But of course, as numerous pundits have noted, additional Senate experience will only handicap Obama. The last sitting Senator to run successfully for President was John F. Kennedy. Indeed, since Nixon and Johnson did it, even Senators who became Vice President (Mondale, Gore) have been unable to seize the brass ring. The conventional wisdom says that a career in the Senate leads to an encumbering paper trail on national issues, and that’s likely to be true in 08 as well. Unlike potential rivals Bayh, Biden, Clinton, Edwards and (God help us) Kerry, Obama has the good fortune not to have been in the Senate when the resolution to authorize the use of force in Iraq was up for a vote. (Roll call here). If, as looks increasingly likely, the war continues to be an issue in 08, Obama will not be handicapped by having to explain why he was for the war before he was against it.

In a way, then, a very brief term in the Senate may be the ideal resume for a Presidential candidate. It provides enough national exposure to gain recognition but not enough of a record to tie the candidate down. Yes, I know that governors have done remarkably well in recent Presidential elections (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 2), but I find it hard to believe that Tom Vilsack or Bill Richardson will out-poll Obama. Of course, anything can happen, and Dorf on Law doesn’t endorse candidates (as if the candidates wanted such a kiss of death!), but from where I sit, it looks like being a lightweight Senator—in the sense of not being weighed down by long tenure in the Senate—is just the ticket, especially against a likely Republican nominee whose 20+ years of mostly very conservative votes will be hard to characterize as “maverick” once they come under close scrutiny.