Can Obama's "Soft Power" Still Play Hardball?

11/05/2007 03:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following piece is published on Witness L.A. as well as OffTheBus.

A bare two months out from the first of the presidential primaries, the pollsters, plus the majority of the media, have all but called it for Hillary---and her recent prevarications and school-marmish lectures during the last Democratic debate seem not to have damped the prognosticators' resolve.

Yet, in the midst of this persistent Hillary's-the-One fever, two major articles have come out over the weekend that each, from very different perspectives, declare that it is Barack Obama, not HRC, who ought to be the candidate of the moment.

The first, written by centrist Republican writer/pundit Andrew Sullivan, appears in December's Atlantic Monthly. In it, Sullivan declares that America is desperately politically divided and that Obama is the one person on the contemporary stage with the understanding and the desire to truly heal the fracture. Whether one agrees altogether with Sullivan (who initially favored the Iraq war, among other failed administration policies), it's a well-thought-out analysis that makes for provocative reading.

"At its best," writes Sullivan, "the Obama candidacy is about ending a war--not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade--but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war--and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama--and Obama alone--offers the possibility of a truce."

Then, on Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, reporter and author James Traub, presents the argument that, despite the common perception that Hillary is the best prepared of the Democratic field to handle the tough realties of a post 9/11 world, a majority of the Democratic foreign policy specialists believe that, in practical fact, it's Obama, not Clinton, who has the approach and the temperament most suited to deal with America's international challenges--from Iran to globalization.

Traub writes,"'There are maybe 200 people on the Democratic side who think about foreign policy for a living,' as one such figure, himself unaffiliated with a campaign, estimates. 'The vast majority have thrown in their lot with Obama.' Hillary Clinton's inner circle consists of the senior-most figures from her husband's second term in office -- the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the former national security adviser Sandy Berger and the former United Nations ambassador Richard Holbrooke. But drill down into one of Washington's foreign-policy hives, whether the Carnegie Endowment or the Brookings Institution or Georgetown University, and you're bound to hit Obama supporters.

Traub also talks of "soft power" -- a term popularized by Harvard professor Joseph Nye to describe the capacity to gain support through attraction rather than force -- an approach that Traub suggests is the strength of both Obama's candidacy and much of his foreign policy outlook--as opposed to what Obama describes as Clinton's "paint-by-the-numbers" toughness.

In the end, the pair of articles and the viewpoints they espouse may amount to little more than a couple of aerial water drops set down on an already blazing wildfire (yes, it's a California analogy)---in other words, too little and too late. Maybe the American people have already decided.

Then again, political winds can switch directions when least expected, so when handicapping elections it is tempting to look for auguries in strange places. For instance: When Obama made his surprise appearance on this weekend's Saturday Night Live broadcast, the startled audience cheered for him as if he was a rock star---or a winning politician. Would they have cheered with the same delighted abandon had the unannounced guest been Hillary Clinton? Maybe. But somehow, I don't think so.