We still don't know Obama

obamaWe've been snatching up the hints, eating up the intimations and listening to mesmerizing speeches, but we are all still waiting for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. -- the latest Next Big Thing in the 2008 presidential race -- to tell us what he believes. No, not his position on the issues, or that he thinks Democrats should court evangelicals, but what he believes. The problem for journalists is that unless the candidate comes out and outlines his moral philosophy and the basis for what I'll call guiding life principles (which often have religious roots), it's very tricky for journalists to nail down the belief question. But it's not as if Obama has not given us material to work with.

Remember Obama's speech this past summer at the Call to Renewal conference? Our friends over at Beliefnet do us all a favor and posted some video highlights (if you're interested in the entire speech, the original source is here). Then there was his appearance at Rick Warren's AIDS conference that generated a bit of news, but little that affected Obama directly. Or did it?

Here's Time's David Van Biema:

The invitation works perfectly for Obama. Through his autobiography The Audacity of Hope and his public statements, the Senator had already positioned himself as one of the rare potential Democratic Presidential candidates who can truly talk the Christian talk. Today's speech can only reinforce that impression. Says Collin Hansen, an associate editor at the Evangelical monthly Christianity Today, "I think the Senator's political team, or whoever's making the decision, was smart to associate him with Warren. It suggests that there are Evangelical moderates that they can work with, or reach, or maybe even attract their votes."

OK, it's been established that Obama can talk the talk. He's a very good talker. Brilliant, even. But can he walk the walk? And, more importantly, is it necessary for Obama to walk the walk? And what does it mean for Obama to walk the walk?

More on this later from tmatt, but Hillary Clinton has had her moment of cozying up to the religious side of American life. Is this speech and talking at a Rick Warren AIDS conference enough? Did any of this tell us what Obama believes? When the infatuation ends, what substance will Obama have for us? In the same way that it's important for Mitt Romney to explain how his Mormon faith affects him politically, it's inevitable that Obama (who likes the Bears, by the way) will attempt to do the same with his faith.

obama at conferenceFor a solid analysis of what we've seen so far from Obama, it's time to turn to The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, who knows a thing or two about being around charismatic politicians. Let's just say she's not convinced, but she gives us a good idea of what she thinks Obama believes:

But again, what does he believe? From reading his book, I would say he believes in his destiny. He believes in his charisma. He has the confidence of the anointed. He has faith in the magic of the man who meets his moment.

He also believes in the power of good nature, the need for compromise, and the possibility of comprehensive, multitiered, sensible solutions achieved through good-faith negotiations.

But mostly it seems to be about him, his sense of destiny, and his appreciation of his own particular gifts. Which leaves me thinking Oh dear, we have been here before. It's not as if we haven't already had a few of the destiny boys. It's not as if we don't have a few more in the wings.

It would not be hard for Obama to show us otherwise. Or an enterprising journalist could do some solid leg work by visiting Obama's childhood years, examining his time at Harvard, scoring a good interview and telling us what he believes. Maybe someone has already done this and I'm just unaware?

It's easy for journalists covering politics to get stuck covering the horse race. Who's ahead? How are issues shifting candidates around? What do the latest polls say? It's much harder -- but more enjoyable for both the reporter and the reader -- to cover the actual candidates. Let's get beyond his voting record and his focus-grouped speeches and find out what he really believes.

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