The inaudacious Barack Obama

Even before the news hit that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-Ill.) had finally out-raised him this quarter, and surpassed him in a national poll by 33 points, I had already said goodbye to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Many Americans, from all corners of the political landscape, have watched Obama, the novice, with fascination as he attempted to break an unbreakable system.

The uplifting message, crushing crowds, exceptional personal story, superior education, perfect voice and beautiful family — all made the half-black, half-white Barack Hussein Obama the quintessential, irresistible underdog.

Obama came far, and many things broke his way. Alone the fact that he managed to out-raise Clinton in the first two quarters, at the very start of their campaigns, was staggering. Up against her frighteningly formidable machine most of us thought Obama would be squished like an ant by Valentine’s Day, but instead he enjoyed an early surge that must have scared Clinton half out of her pantsuit.

Now it is no longer possible for Obama to win on his terms and on his ideas. His only hope of victory would have to come from her unlikely fall or failure.

When it’s over, Obama will likely remain a once-in-a-lifetime story. But much as Obama wanted to change politics, he is not a revolutionary. The Obama candidacy, which journeys only on the high road, is ultimately built on more caution than hope, more caution than excitement, even more caution than Clinton.

Obama simply didn’t trust his stuff, or he spent too much energy protecting it as Clinton’s lead burgeoned all year.

This week, as Obama embarks on a McCainesque revival tour, painfully titled the “Judgment and Experience Tour,” he is entering the critical stage, missing Senate votes and pulling out all the stops — which for Obama means … what?

Clinton now leads among men and women, whites and blacks, while Obama’s constituency remains the young, and the better-educated, voters who typically don’t decide primaries.

Obama’s great hope of derailing Clinton stems from the idea that his cell phone-clutching army of new young voters who don’t register in phone polling will charge into the right living rooms in the right numbers on the right chilly night to caucus him to an Iowa victory that would slow Clinton elsewhere and then stop her.

Obama hired seasoned minds for his maiden voyage, but he made the usual newcomer blunders anyway. Tactical errors such as refusing debates were never a luxury Obama could afford. Why did he decide against attending the AARP debate sponsored by Iowa Public Television, blowing off older voters and letting Clinton and even Edwards own the crowd?

It was a bozo move, no excuses.

And why does Obama feel he can dodge votes? The day of the last Democratic debate he had “missed” the Senate vote on designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “foreign terrorist organization.”

That takes guts.

When Republicans took revenge, condemning the MoveOn advertisement about Gen. David Petraeus, Clinton and others voted against it but Obama decided not to vote — in protest against “a stunt designed only to score cheap political points.”

In the state legislature, Obama attracted attention for voting “present” on key issues including abortion bills; a bill raising penalties for firing guns on or near a school; a bill prohibiting strip clubs from being within 1,000 feet of schools, churches and daycare centers; and legislation protecting the privacy of sex-abuse victims.

Nowhere has Obama’s candidacy and momentum suffered more from the fear of mistakes than from his refusal to seek the support of black voters wholeheartedly. The challenge of avoiding becoming too much the Black Candidate for a general election is so difficult it may be impossible, but straddling that line was the only way Obama could hope to overcome the Clinton stranglehold. After all, she herself is the champion straddler.

Obama had to go early and enthusiastically to the black community and galvanize them, and it seems he did not. Last week at a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Foundation event, Obama spoke on climate change in some room somewhere in the Washington Convention Center while Clinton was served up as the main attraction in the main ballroom, having just eclipsed Obama’s 12 CBC endorsements with her 13th. In April our paper reported Obama had yet to hold a fundraiser for the CBC’s political action committee, despite the fact that its members had asked him to a year ago. When did Clinton hold hers? More than a year ago.

At the Howard University debate that PBS aired this summer, Obama nearly ceded the night to Clinton with more platitudes than passion. All you had to see was how much more enthusiastically Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was applauding for Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and not just on his war answers.

In the case now known as the “Jena 6,” Obama was late to the game, skipping the rally in Louisiana and making critical statements only after Rev. Jesse Jackson, his supporter, had already publicly dissed him by saying, “if I were a candidate I’d be all over Jena.”

Jackson even uttered the poisonous words: Obama was “acting like he’s white.” Jackson later recanted the white reference, but the damage was done: Obama had let Jackson, initially an asset, become a liability among a key voting bloc.

As the numbers slipped and then the dollars, Obama has remained steadfast in his commitment to avoid the “smallness of our politics” and be the grown-up who won’t attack his opponent. Last weekend his chief strategist, David Axelrod, said: “Barack Obama didn’t get into this race to beat Hillary Clinton down or anybody else down. He got into this race to lift the country up.”

Without explicitly telling the voters how yesterday’s politics holds them back, how much lifting up will they want? Obama has never found a way to ask voters if they trust that Clinton, who has swerved from war supporter to war opponent in a short time, will do as she says now if she becomes commander in chief.

Obama’s speech this week commemorating his declaration of opposition to the Iraq war five years ago never mentioned Clinton’s name. It is no wonder Clinton managed to steal the “change” mantle from him in much the same way as George W. Bush swiped “reformer” from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2000 and became the “reformer with results.” Obama practically handed it to her.

Axelrod was quoted last week as saying “the question is ultimately, Is she credible — whether people buy her as an agent of change in Washington. If they do, she’ll do well.”

Note the conditional tense? Heavy on caution, light on hope.

It’s time to add the caveat: I love an upset as much as anyone and yearn to eat all of my words about all the candidates in each party. And yes, it’s hard to be Obama, the brightest star, whose freshness and charisma prompted high expectations. We save our lower expectations for well-known, polarizing figures and their mighty political machines.

Perhaps the Obama candidacy was inherently flawed; he could never shake things up from such a lofty perch. He is likely protecting his brand for later, not wanting to be sullied. Sure thing, B-Rock.

But the throngs of thousands may not think much of the brand if the moment passes. Obama is running for president this time, and those who have chosen him over the safe choice are hoping for a little audacity. Whoever succeeds in changing our entrenched system won’t be a subdued person who did so nicely, and he or she will likely be much more audacious than Barack Obama.