The immediate hurdle is that he hasn’t built any infrastructure for a presidential run—and despite a summer meeting with major donors to his Hopefund PAC, he hasn’t begun raising money. According to Axelrod, Obama hasn’t done any polling since his 2004 election. But he probably could ramp up an effort quickly if he decides that 2008 is his moment. “He’s the only one who could flip a switch, raise money, and hire talent,” says Jeff Zeleny, who covered Obama for the Chicago Tribune.
If he ran, Obama would run smack into his colleague Hillary Rodham Clinton. In becoming the Democrats’ other celebrity senator, Obama has tried to follow the so-called “Clinton model”—to be seen as a “workhorse” rather than a “show horse.” The two superstars—Obama and Clinton—as well as their Republican counterpart, John McCain, operate on a different stage than the other 97 senators.
In key ways, Clinton and Obama are opposites. Clinton is a pragmatist who takes the existing framework and figures out what she can accomplish in the “real world.” She tends to focus on policy bit by bit rather than reaching for a larger message. Obama, says Lu, his legislative director, is a dreamer more likely to ask, “Why accept the way it is as the way it is?”
Says Obama: “The way I approach problems is to say, ‘What’s the optimal solution?’ and then work backwards. I like to start with the idea—what’s true to me? Or what’s the best approximation of true?”
Hillary Clinton can’t match Obama’s rhetorical skills and often doesn’t come across well in larger groups. She wins over smaller groups and individuals one-on-one. Obama is the master of the large group. “I’ve seen him get going, and he just hits it. He feeds off the crowd,” says Shomon. In smaller groups, he says, Obama “gets sleepy, and he can make you sleepy.”
Obama isn’t a backslapper and gladhander like Bill Clinton. His demeanor is almost preternaturally calm—his poise makes him seem instantly in command. He’ll sign your book, take a photo with you, or give an autograph, but it’s done with a bit of bemusement at his own fame.
And where Bill Clinton’s rise was marked at every turn by scandal, controversy, and partisan vitriol, Obama has sailed through his brief time on the national stage largely free of controversy, burnishing his image as the hope of a new generation.
His September speech in Iowa, while long on traditional Democratic themes, had that extra something the crowd yearned for—the “it” factor. Strip away his charisma, strip away his personal story, and lots of candidates could have given a similar speech—but Obama is different.
In the end, Obama will probably make the decision on whether to run in 2008 during a long walk down the Mall or while staring at the icons on his office wall.
“I agree with the saying that timing is everything, but I believe that whether you have a good sense of timing is largely determined retrospectively,” he says. “I am a believer in Woody Allen’s adage that 80 percent of success is showing up.