How much room does Obama have to boast?

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Oct. 3 2007 6:33 PM

Song of Myself

How much room does Obama have to boast?

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Sen. Barack Obama

This week Barack Obama's campaign turned into a victory lap. In a four-day "Judgment and Experience" tour, the senator celebrated the fifth anniversary of his speech opposing the Iraq war. "On the single most important foreign policy issue of our time, I got it right," Obama said. His Web site shows voters from around the country reading portions of his 2002 speech to one another. Obama gave a new speech Tuesday that claimed he has keener insight than Washington politicians, the media, and the foreign policy establishment. Anyone who doubted that assertion, he said, was merely "bent out of shape" by having their assumptions challenged by someone who had "spent time serving in the wider world." Namely: himself. This was a new strategy but not unrecognizable behavior. On the stump, Obama often tells voters how bold he is—talking about fuel efficiency in front of Detroit automakers and confronting powerful lobbies that other politicians are afraid to challenge. For a candidate so anxious to remind everyone that he's not a typical Beltway insider, Obama can sound a lot like a classic Washington type: the senator who regards himself too highly.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Obama is not the only candidate given to bragging. John Edwards' press releases proclaim how bold he is. Sen. Biden rarely misses a chance to promote a bill he's authored or a trip he's taken. Rudy Giuliani responded to questions about his foreign-policy credentials during a recent trip to London by saying that he was among the best-known Americans in the world. In another instance, he compared himself to the first-responders at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. In debates, Giuliani is constantly going on about his achievements as mayor, or more recent feats, like having read the 300-page immigration bill. Even John McCain, who developed a whole new campaign style based on self-deprecation and admitting mistakes, is busy reminding voters that he was right about the direction of the Iraq war and that he spoke out about it before others.

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Candidates brag because they have to—they can't rely on voters to get the message or the media to deliver it. But a little self-love goes a long way on the campaign trail. Voters don't want to hear about the candidate as much as they want to hear what the candidate is going to do for them and the country. This is why Bill Clinton, a nimble politician, knew reflexively to turn around questions about the beating he was taking as a candidate and say it was nothing compared with the beating the American people had taken. Appearing humble is presidential tradition. George Washington walked away from power, and Abraham Lincoln was quick to quantify his shortcomings. Charles De Gaulle is not our kind of fellow.

Obama has put such focus on a single speech out of necessity. His opponents, particularly Hillary Clinton and her husband, question whether he has the experience to be president. Obama's boasting answers critique and put Clinton on the defensive at the same time. It's probably a smart tactic, but the posture is at odds with the reflective politician who in 2004 talked about not knowing which way he would have voted on the Iraq question if he'd been in the Senate at the time. Nor does Obama seem like the same fellow who wrote so readily of his faults in The Audacity of Hope. In the book, he also  explains that empathy for your opponents was the key to healthy political discussion.

One risk with bragging is that you turn into a bore. The other is that pride goeth before a fall. Nothing delights an audience more than the deflation of a braggart. George H.W. Bush "was born on third base and thought he hit a triple," Texas Gov. Ann Richards used to joke. When Dan Quayle mentioned Jack Kennedy in the 1988 vice presidential debate, Lloyd Bentsen took his pants down with a boast of his own: "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Obama's reliance on his anti-war position invites stories that question whether he is inflating his courage. This creates a double risk: résumé inflation suggests both dishonesty and a lack of anything else to boast about. Some Democrats say Hillary Clinton takes too much credit for her role initiating the SCHIP. (Ted Kennedy was the bill's driving force.) But her bragging hasn't sounded excessive, and voters will probably tolerate it. A bigger stretch is Fred Thompson's excessive regard for his role as John Robert's Senate escort during the chief justice's confirmation hearings, a task never before listed by a presidential aspirant and not historically associated with greatness. Thompson's lack of material explains perhaps why he treats his decision to run for president is an achievement that is itself worth boasting about. "I could have spent the years reading other people's scripts and cashing other people's checks," he says on the stump, "but instead I decided to get into this race."

Perhaps the biggest political danger of showing voters how fond you are of yourself is that it might remind them of the current president. Each day seems to bring a new piece of evidence of President Bush's hubris. In his new book, former Mexican President Vicente Fox calls Bush "the cockiest guy I have ever met in my life." A recently released recorded conversation with former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar confirms that. "I'm an optimist because I believe that I'm right," Bush says about going to war with Iraq. "I'm a person at peace with myself." Self-confidence is now a warning sign for myopia, insulation, and the inability to accurately assess the world around you.

In a speech containing 80 uses of the first-person pronoun, Obama did have one line of quasi-humility: "I am not a perfect man and I won't be a perfect president." A more effective balance may be his wife, who regularly includes in her praise the comment that he is also human and able to admit his mistakes. He'll need a dose of that when he gets home after his "I was right" tour.

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