Obama-mania may backfire

He holds the promise of being able to shake up Washington. But key tests loom.

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Unless you were stranded on a desert island last week, you probably know that Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois announced he is officially considering possibly running for president in an election almost two years away.

It wasn't exactly a shocking development, but it made big headlines. Last Tuesday, the day Senator Obama posted the video on his website announcing that he had created an exploratory committee – his intention to consider his intentions – cable news spent much of the day discussing the announcement.

In fact, there was so much coverage of the senator's statement that between Tuesday and Sunday last week the word "Obama" got 14,800 hits on a search of Google News. That was more than 10 times as many hits received over the same period for the terms "Iraq" and "34,452" – the UN's estimate last week of the number of Iraqi civilian deaths since the war there began.

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Of course, last week's other big entry in the 2008 race, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York, scored slightly more coverage in the period with 15,300 hits, but Senator Clinton legitimately made history with her entry – the first time the spouse of a former president has sought the White House.

While Clinton has served an entire term in the Senate, Obama is just two years into his first term and has a slight track record.

Yes, Obama's life story – father from Kenya, mother from Kansas – makes for compelling copy. But at this point in American political history, an African-American running for president isn't new. Shirley Chisholm ran back in 1972. Jesse Jackson made an especially strong run in 1988. A 2004 contender, Al Sharpton, recently said he may run again, though that announcement drew less media interest.

So what is it about Obama that has the press's pens scribbling and cameras flashing?

Well, the senator's media talents are formidable: He is smooth and natural on camera and is an engrossing speaker. And he is generating real excitement with voters. His 2004 convention speech is still talked about. And his recent visit to New Hampshire drew huge crowds.

Ironically, however, a big reason for the press's fascination with him is that he is almost as much a mystery to the media as he is to the public. He has no lengthy public record we in the media can go back and study, as is the case with most senators – including Clinton – or governors. Other than his two years in the Senate, his political experience consists of seven years in the Illinois Senate. He has no previous big, close campaigns we can look at to see what he did in a pinch. He is as fresh and new to most of us as he is to you.

As much as people like to talk about "the media" as though "it" is a monolith, they are complex organisms made up of people – people that have ideas about the issues and personalities they cover. Years of covering politicians and the electorate leads many reporters to think that a certain kind of person may be the right kind of person to fix the problems and run the country.

It's less a Democrat or Republican issue than it is a type-of-person issue. The press gravitates toward well-educated moderates who talk about a third way or new paradigm in politics. In 2000, it was Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and his Straight Talk Express that captured attention.

For many in the media, Obama is a candidate to get excited about because he holds the promise of being interesting, different, and able to shake up Washington.

And that means Obama-mania will probably be alive and well in the press for at least a few more months. But at some point that lack of a long public history could present some problems for the senator.

Inevitably the "Who is Barack Obama?" stories will come – pseudo-psychological pieces that will put the senator on the couch. They will, as they most always do, look for "key moments" from his life to draw a picture. And what will they find?

Obama's short time in office means that image will be crafted probably even more than usual from old friends, old tales, and old pieces of writing. Those things may or may not have real significance – and may or may not be flattering – but are easy to draw from and more difficult to rebut.

Right now, Obama enjoys a sweet story line. But at some point, the media will be eager to fill in the missing pages. And when they do, Obama may find that his biggest strength with the media has its problems.

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.

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