It was a virtual love-in Thursday at the Illinois Terminal in Champaign when Democratic U.S. Sen. Barack Obama stopped by to answer questions at a town meeting. Even the anti-war protestors, who criticized Obama for not arranging the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq after a mere eight months in office, were deferential.
Obama, Illinois' junior senator but a national political phenomenon, got a standing ovation when he entered the room. After the meeting, he was swarmed by well-wishers and autograph seekers. In between, members of the audience laughed at all of his jokes, swallowed his policy pronouncements hook, line and sinker and vied with each other to see who could present himself as the biggest Obama fan.
At one point, when he said, "I'm not the president [–] yet," the audience erupted into wild applause.
What's going on here? A year ago, Obama was a junior state senator in Illinois. Now he's a freshman U.S. Senator who has no clout and is a member of the Senate's minority party. He hasn't done a thing except vote like a conventional liberal Democrat [–] a la Teddy Kennedy. Nonetheless, most voters seem to love him no matter what their political bent, projecting whatever values they admire in a politician upon Obama.
It's dangerous to get to try to get too far ahead of the curve. But he could be a president in the making. If his star continues to rise, Obama seems certain to get serious consideration for the vice presidential slot on the Democratic Party ticket in 2008.
That would be a stunning but not unprecedented rise to the top in national politics.
Richard Nixon went from being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946 to election as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. And Nixon wasn't nearly as likeable as Obama.
That matters a lot because most regular people, not the political zealots of the right and left, prefer politicians they like as opposed to politicians with whom they share a political viewpoint. That's mostly because most Americans don't have a strong political viewpoint.
Given a choice between the sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan or the dour, eat-your-spinach persona of Jimmy Carter, voters went overwhelmingly for Reagan. Ditto with Bill Clinton. So what if Clinton was a rascal? Some voters liked him in spite of it and others because of it.
Obama comes across as a good guy trying to do the right thing, willing to discuss and compromise with others. He's intelligent, has a low-key, friendly demeanor and, unlike Illinois' senior U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, disdains demonizing his political opponents. In an age of political blowhards trying to outshout each other, he's a breath of fresh air.
Of course, it's a long way to the White House and a warm reception by a Democrat-dominated audience in Champaign is not proof of universal love. But News-Gazette reporter Paul Wood said Obama's audience in Tuscola, located in Republican Douglas County, was similarly effusive.