Whitesburg KY

Obama’s problem

Susan Estrich

Susan Estrich

It was, if not the biggest, certainly the most talked about fundraiser of this political season. Those lucky enough to be invited parked in a lot miles away and boarded buses to stand outside with their high heels sinking into the lawn – a privilege that required a minimum contribution of $2300. No one is talking about the food, but then, that wasn’t the point.

The point was Oprah.

She is, deservedly, one of the most powerful women in the world, even if she hasn’t voted in a presidential primary since 1988. (Was it Jesse? I’m probably one of the few people who even remember the Illinois primary of 1988.)

She isn’t just a daytime television host; she is a one-woman institution, an arbiter of taste, a maker of best-sellers, a movie and theater producer, a force for education in South Africa and empowerment for girls. She can also be a diva, as she was when Hermes in Paris closed their store on her, just because it was closing time. They learned. No one says no to Oprah. The lucky ones are those who get to say yes.

And so the high and mighty, the rich and famous, stood on her lawn last week, without complaints about the grass or the bus ride or the fact that only the luckiest ones – who paid or raised even more – got to go inside afterward for dinner, to hear her tell them why she was, for the first time, jumping feet-first into the Democratic primary race to endorse Barack Obama for president.

The question is: Does it matter? Can Oprah do for Obama what she does for unknown authors and their unsold books, for her favorite therapist (Dr. Phil) and her favorite trainer (Bob Greene)? Oprah can make bestsellers and stars, but can she make Obama president?

Don’t bet on it.

Of course she can raise money; she just did. But you don’t have to be Oprah to raise money, as one Mr. Hsu so painfully proved. No one had ever even heard of him (which was why he wasn’t in prison), and he had already raised $850,000, which is not bad for a nobody. Besides, money isn’t really Obama’s problem. He’s been doing fine in that department, even without Oprah opening her doors.

Certainly, Oprah could solve any number of problems for a politician.

If name recognition were Obama’s problem, Oprah could give it to him, almost instantly.

If sizzle and charisma were what he was lacking, Oprah could provide a healthy dose of it with her magic touch.

If the issue were his personality, his being too cool or distant or ruthlessly ambitious, Oprah could warm him up.

But those aren’t Barack’s problems. The reason he seems to be falling further behind Hillary instead of catching up to her, notwithstanding the biggest press love-in that any candidate has enjoyed in my life, not to mention record-breaking fundraising, has nothing to do with style, charisma, personality or pizzazz. He has all that, and more.

The problem is the second date.

Obama is the best first date anyone in politics has had in decades. When you watch him for the first time, hear him speak for the first time, watch a crowd watch him for the first time, you know immediately that this guy is special, the most talented politician to come down the pike in many years.

He gets it. He understands the disgust people feel about politics, but also the wish for it to be better; the fear so many of us live with about our children’s and our own future, but also our essential hopefulness and optimism, the American spirit that says things can be better. He taps in to the best of our nature, the part of us that sees the partisan bickering as the posturing that it is, as a sideshow and a distraction and no answer to anything.

You go home from your first date with Barack Obama knowing you have met someone who could change your life.

And then what?

You wait for the second date that will build on the first, that will prove this guy is actually ready, now, up to the job, burning with the fire in his belly, will- ing to stand up and do what it takes, to fight with every bit of energy and intelligence he has for what only he can do for the country and the world.

It’s not something advisers can write for him in a speech. It’s not something Oprah can convey with a warm embrace. It’s certainly not something money can buy.

It has to come from deep inside him, has to be as powerful as the first date, as explosive as the opening applause.

I haven’t heard it yet.

Barack Obama is the best first date in American politics. His evening with Oprah proved that once again, to the tune of $3 million.

But the second date has to come from him, and it hasn’t, at least not yet.

©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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