The Obama Era

He had to run.

Was there really any question whether Barack Obama would make the move he did this week, in announcing a presidential exploratory committee, the first step in a run for the White House in 2008?

How could he say no?

Politics is a game of ambition and advancement. Every alderman sees a president when he shaves. Certainly every Senator does. But very few are in any position to chart the course, much less imagine its success. Barack Obama could win.

What would it have said about him if, knowing that, he didn’t try – if faced with the kind of opportunity that never comes along for most politicians, he wasn’t ready to step up to it. He would not be where he is today if he were that kind of man.

Of course he is young, a newcomer, without the sort of organization and pile of chits that Hillary and Bill Clinton have been collecting for years. Of course he is going around this track for the first time, without the sort of experience, much less time on the ground, that John Edwards gained from running before.

Edwards has been working Iowa for years. Clinton’s base of donors goes back decades. But none of that matters quite the same way it once did.

The internet will decide this election. Whoever figures out how to use it best, whoever is helped most or hurt least by its reach, will win.

It could be Obama.

The internet makes it possible to communicate with more people at less cost than ever before. It makes it possible for an unknown to become well known faster than ever before, for an organization to grow at warp speed, for money to be raised in buckets with the flash of a click. It has the potential to engage people in politics who would never go to events, are on no one’s old list, are outsiders to the political process. It intensifies the scrutiny and magnifies the result, which is both a risk but also a vital opportunity for a candidate who most Americans know virtually nothing about.

With the internet, Everything that happens, what goes right and what goes wrong, will be instantly available to everyone. Mistakes will be magnified, viewed by millions literally in moments; but so will triumphs. Momentum will be built or lost with speed we once could barely imagine.

In a nominating calendar in which more and more states are clustered at the start, the opportunities for a true insurgent become more limited. Before you begin, you must be ready to win. You must be organized in more states, sooner, ready to move faster, than in any prior year. You must be able to raise $100 million, much if not most of it before the first vote is cast.

True unknowns can’t do that. Longshots can’t do that. Obama can do that.

Hillary is strong, but she is also vulnerable. She is experienced, but some of her experience will be counted against her. She is known, but what many people know they don’t like. She is better positioned for a general election than for the Democratic primaries and caucuses. Hillary is the front runner, but she is by no means inevitable. Racism is real, but sexism may be more powerful. Hillary voted for the war, and Obama wasn’t there.

Edwards is barely more experienced than Obama. He is against the war now, but he voted for it when he had the chance. He is older than Obama, but he doesn’t look it. Obama has actually been in politics longer than Edwards, has held elective office longer than Hillary, is virtually the same age her husband was when he ran.

The issue will not be whether Obama has good enough experience, but whether he is good enough as a candidate. He can’t afford to say the wrong thing. A mistake will be read as not ready. But he has no record of bad votes to defend, no troublesome inconsistent statements from past campaigns to explain away.

I’m still putting my money on Mrs.Clinton, but she can no longer claim inevitability as her argument. Not with Obama in the race. If she beats him, she will be a stronger candidate for it. If she doesn’t, he will have proven himself a better candidate for the Democrats. Win-win, I’d say, and a race worth watching.

Republicans beware. The Democrats have more than one rock star in the race. The Republicans are divided and struggling. McCain has come to be the symbol of an increasingly unpopular war. He doesn't look nearly so unbeatable as he used to. What a difference a year makes. One more 'til Iowa....

Click here to read Susan's response to your email.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless."

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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