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Run On

Why Barack Obama should run for president in 2008.

By my count, twelve United States senators are considering a run for president in 2008: six Democrats (Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, Russ Feingold, and John Kerry) and six Republicans (George Allen, Sam Brownback, Bill Frist, Chuck Hagel, John McCain, and Rick Santorum). For Biden, Kerry, and McCain it would be their second presidential campaign.

Elsewhere in that august body, another eight senators have already run for president, failing to reach the White House but contributing mightily to the craft of colorful campaign coverage. Four Republicans who have run left behind campaign innovations such as iconic outerwear (Lamar Alexander), daring speech choreography (Elizabeth Dole), the chiropractor vote (Orrin Hatch), and the idea that voters should care about foreign policy (Richard Lugar), but they never won a primary. On the Democratic side, Robert Byrd, Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy, and Joe Lieberman have left us with two versions of the “favorite son” strategy, as well as Bob Shrum and Joementum, but they didn’t become president.

Several other current senators have at some point been mentioned seriously as potential presidential candidates, and just about every senator at least considers running. In short, the Senate operates as both America’s incubator of presidential ambitions and the retirement home of its failed candidates. The well-known curse of the Senate is that it both elevates politicians to within striking distance of the White House and burdens them with the baggage of a complicated voting record and the stench of the Beltway.

This is why Barack Obama must run for president in 2008.

Obama, you may remember, is the lanky 44-year-old from Illinois elected to the Senate last year. He is the most promising politician in America, and eventually he is going to run for president. The case for running now is not that it is the perfect moment for him to run. It’s not. It is just that it may be the best chance he will ever get.

The main objection to an Obama run is his obvious lack of experience. He needs at least a full Senate term before he is taken seriously, the argument goes. On the one hand, each day spent in the Senate gives Obama more experience and stature for his inevitable presidential campaign. But each day also brings with it an accumulation of tough votes, the temptations of bad compromises, potentially perilous interactions with lobbyists, and all the other behaviors necessary to operate as a successful senator. At some unknowable date in the future, remaining in the Senate will reach a point of diminishing returns for Obama. The experience gained by being a good senator will start to be outweighed by the staleness acquired by staying in Washington.

There’s no way for Obama to know when he will reach this point. That uncertainty makes 2008 look like his best opportunity. He can be certain that 2008 will be a year with a wide open primary on both the Republican and Democratic sides in which neither a sitting president nor vice president will be running, a rare event in presidential politics that lowers the bar of entry for all candidates. He can have a high degree of confidence that if he waits until 2012, he will face the historically impossible task of unseating the incumbent president of his own party, or the historically difficult task of unseating the incumbent president of the opposition party. The 2016 race would probably be his final chance. But by waiting until then he would have to bet that the Senate has not destroyed his career, or, if he has moved to the safer confines of the Illinois governor’s mansion--his next chance would be in 2010--that he has not already passed his political peak.

The kind of political star power Obama has doesn’t last. My favorite law of American politics is that candidates have only 14 years to become president. That is their expiration date. The idea was conceived by a very smart political junkie who happens to be a senior aide to Vice President Cheney (don’t hold that against him), and the law was popularized in a column by Jonathan Rauch of National Journal. As Rauch put it, “With only one exception [Lyndon Johnson] since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, no one has been elected president who took more than 14 years to climb from his first major elective office to election as either president or vice president.” As Rauch showed, the majority of presidents since 1900 have fallen on the low end of this zero-to-fourteen-year spectrum: zero (Dwight Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft), two years (Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt), four years (Franklin Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge), and six years (George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Warren Harding). The lesson is that Obama must strike while he is hot or risk fading into obscurity.

The biggest objection to Obama running for president just four years after being elected to national office is his lack of experience on national security. But experience is an overrated asset in presidential politics. It is conventional wisdom now that only during the interregnum between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of the war on terror could candidates lacking foreign-policy credentials win the presidency (i.e., Bill Clinton and George W. Bush). But John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all won during the cold war without significant experience in world affairs.

And besides, Obama is already making a name for himself as one of the Democratic Party’s national-security leaders. He recently visited Ukraine to inspect aging stockpiles of unsecured conventional weapons and is co-sponsoring legislation with Lugar to safeguard the munitions. The program is modeled on the famous Nunn-Lugar initiative to secure loose nukes. On Iraq, Obama, who opposed the war, has also staked out one of the more mature positions within his party. “Having waged a war that has unleashed daily carnage and uncertainty in Iraq,” he said in a recent speech, “we have to manage our exit in a responsible way--with the hope of leaving a stable foundation for the future, but at the very least taking care not to plunge the country into an even deeper and, perhaps, irreparable crisis.” At home, he has become the Senate leader on preparing for an outbreak of avian flu.

In fact, with these recent policy moves, Obama, who will be 47 in 2008--one year older than Bill Clinton was in 1992--sounds increasingly like someone who is considering a run. And if he isn’t, he should.