By Editor-in-chief
updated 12/15/2006 11:46:57 AM ET 2006-12-15T16:46:57
ANALYSIS

WASHINGTON — The hype about Barack Obama’s potential presidential candidacy is less about the freshman Democratic senator than it is about the public’s desire for a change from the polarization and paralyzation of American politics. Just ask him.

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“I think to some degree I’ve become a short-hand or a symbol or a stand-in, for now, of a spirit that the last election in New Hampshire represents,” Obama said during his first trip as a presidential prospect to that political battleground. “It’s a spirit that says we are looking for different. We want something new.”

Nobody, not even the unusually self-aware Obama, knows what would happen if he entered the presidential race. But you can bet on this: Americans won’t settle for status quo, and if the two major parties don’t produce an authentic, optimistic change agent, voters will look beyond the Democrats and Republicans. They might even look beyond politics in 2008.

Just look at these numbers from the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll:

  • Nearly six in 10 Americans think the nation is on the wrong track.
  • More than seven in 10 expect little or no change in the direction of the country as a result of the Democratic landslide last month.
  • About 72 percent expect partisanship to continue at present levels, or intensify, in the next two years

A variety of surveys show a steady decline in the public’s faith in politics and government, especially after the Hurricane Katrina response revealed that incompetence and unaccountability could be lethal. The Iraq war has stirred the same sinking feelings.

Empowered electorate
Not only is this an angry electorate, it’s an empowered one. New technologies allow voters to consider their choices more deeply and seek out — or create — alternatives. Democrat Howard Dean’s stunning rise in 2004 was just the tip of this Internet iceberg. It is also easier for third-party and independent candidates to raise money and overcome state ballot laws.

Republican strategist Joe Gaylord, an adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said there is a big opening for a “can-do centrist” in 2008. “If there is a person who can not be from the left or the right, who has a track recover of solving problems and making things work, he or she would have a huge market for a third-party bid,” Gaylord said.

“And it wouldn’t hurt if he has $70 million of his own money, like (New York Mayor) Michael Bloomberg” he said.

The NBC-WSJ poll showed Bloomberg with 10 percent of the vote in a hypothetical matchup with Republican front-runner John McCain and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Yet more than a third of the respondents said they knew little or nothing about Bloomberg. Obama is no better known.

So how do you explain the buzz? Both men are, as Obama himself put it, something new.

“I definitely think that we need to think literally about who might run outside of politics and the traditional spheres, someone with a sense of leadership and public service,” said Washington consultant Nicco Mele, a senior strategist for Dean in 2004.

Lou Dobbs for president?
Why couldn’t a cutting-edge businessman like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Howard Shultz of Starbucks win the presidency, or at least shake up the race? Quirky businessman Ross Perot received 19 percent of the vote in 1992, another period of intense voter frustration.

What would happen if a TV news star entered the race, let’s say the venerable Tom Brokaw, or prickly CNN anchor Lou Dobbs and his blue-collar anti-immigration message? How about a charismatic church leader and best-selling author who created a new model for community-building and organizing in the 21st century – somebody like mega-church maven Rev. Rick Warren?

Even mouthy sports figures like former NBA player Charles Barkley are capable of connecting with voters better than most politicians. “You get two rich guys arguing over who’s conservative and who’s liberal and … they just argue for an hour, and nothing gets solved,” Barkley once said.

It is still more likely than not that a Democratic or Republican leader will win the 2008 presidential race. But they’ll be forced to recognize that Obama, if not the next president, is a living example of the voters’ desires; people are projecting in him the values they want in their next president.

“They’re looking for someone who is a uniter. They’re looking for somebody who has their best interests at heart. They’re looking for somebody who is accountable, authentic and relevant,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. “The reason they are excited about Obama, is they’re looking for somebody to inspire them, to make them feel good.”

While she said Obama appears to possess a certain “magic,” Brazile paused when asked whether the hype is all about him, or a sign of the times.

“It’s the times,” she said. “It could be somebody else. But, right now, he’s filling the gap.”

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