Image: Obama
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Sen. Barack Obama answers questions on his campaign plane while departing San Antonio, Texas.
By
msnbc.com
updated 3/5/2008 5:55:01 PM ET 2008-03-05T22:55:01

Who is Barack Obama?

We are about to learn the answer to that question.

Now we’ll see what he really is made of, what he believes deep down, and who he really is as a person.

From now until Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary on April 22, the country is in the midst of an unprecedented, wide open space in this ongoing political season. And his every move is, and will be, the story.

We all know Hillary Clinton — maybe too well.

We know who she is and what she offers.

She was a first lady for eight years, and carries with her all the scars and prior baggage.

Obama, by contrast, was the shiny newcomer who magically appeared on the scene in 2004. He was fresh, and without battle wounds.

But he got nicked badly Tuesday in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island.

Now he’s back in the fight.

He is ahead on points, and will likely win the bout and the championship if he has the guts, the fortitude and the sense of purpose to fully confront Clinton during these final rounds.

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Obama is known for making a stellar first impression.

He learned the skill back when he was child; back when he was forced to make a series of introductions in faraway places.

His mother carted him from Hawaii to Indonesia and back again.

He was plopped down in a white prep school and then sent off for two years of college in Los Angeles before heading east to Columbia University in New York. Then it was Harvard Law. He finally settled down on the South Side of Chicago.

But he was still an outsider, living in a place that, as the saying goes “don’t want no guy no guy sent.”

Pretty much everyone liked or admired Obama. Only his impatient ambition irritated others, mostly those with less talent than he possessed.

But along this timeline, has Obama really ever been “up against it?”

True, he was the mixed-race child of divorce and didn’t know his father. And it’s hard to imagine a tougher emotional childhood than that.

And yet, from the time his grandparents sent him to prep school, it’s all been a pretty smooth ride.

His idea of tough choices and painful sacrifice, evidently, includes his decision to turn down a lucrative corporate law job to advocate for the poor folk of Chicago.

That is worthy, to be sure, but bragging about it can sound a little precious.

Clinton says he’s not “tested.”

But a White House win would be his chance to prove her wrong.

Can he do it? Not if he keeps insisting on thinking of himself as a law professor who turned to politics to make the world a better place.

If Obama really believes in the urgency and indispensability of his vision, he has to fight for it with every inch of strength he possesses.

Paradoxically, Obama has written more about his own life than any presidential candidate in recent memory.

These works include two wryly observant (and quietly self-promotional) autobiographies.

Still, voters didn’t know enough about him in Ohio and Texas — at least not enough to help him deflect some of Clinton’s negative attacks.

So, is Obama ready to be commander-in-chief?

For starters, he has no military experience. None.

Neither does Clinton, though she has done some foreign policy work in the Senate.

So what does he do and say instead?

He talks about what has made him, and what has made him tough.

He acts like a fighter, commander of his own campaign. He does more than trot out a retired general or two. He goes to the army posts and naval bases. He applies his big, absorptive brain to military matters.

He looks into the camera and talks about being a boy in alien cultures.

Are there warriors among his Luo ancestors in Kenya? If so, he should find them!

Here’s the other question: Does he really want to be commander-in-chief? Does that urge come from within him? We need to know if it’s there.

On the economy and trade, Obama has to be the guy that he was on the South Side.

Video: Obama continues to lead Democratic race It seems a simple enough case to make: he did know the sad reality of lives in abandoned places. He bonded with many of those people.

But the studied cool he emanates — the kind of cool that draws the college crowd to his side — hampers his ability to connect in raw, emotional terms.

Does he have that in him? We need to know.

Finally, he has to get a little angry. If he believes in the world he wants to create, he has to fight for it in every town and on every street corner in Pennsylvania.

Americans love a comeback. The one Clinton managed Tuesday night made her look heroic. Her smile was a thousand megawatts. Americans love an underdog as leader, because they like to believe in someone with that kind of spirit.

Clinton has managed to be the underdog. But when Obama gets ahead, he becomes a touch too arrogant for his own good.

He starts referring to himself in the third person. He starts his self-referential stylin’ on the stages of major amphitheaters. He becomes too much of a rock star.

And that's when he takes a fall. He needs more one-on-one time with the kind of average folks that Clinton is successfully running.

Obama is still the frontrunner, but he can’t win unless he behaves like he’s way behind.

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