It's nine months until the election, seven months until the Democratic national convention, and four days until Super Tuesday. But already, it's clear that Barack Obama has won, at least in one key respect. Only he can now say that at some point, some day, he will be the Democratic presidential nominee.
It may happen in 2008. I'd still put his chances at less than 50-50, but he's rapidly approaching that mark; Clinton retains a slight lead, and is essentially running out the clock. Even if it doesn't happen this year, Obama will be the vice presidential nominee -- that is, if he wants it. Others make more sense for Hillary to pick, and she'll clearly try to do so; for all of the smiles last night, she'd surely prefer someone more pliable, subservient, and appreciative. And someone who'd appeal to a constituency that's actually in play, like border state moderates (James Webb for them) or Hispanics (Bill Richardson) But so great would the pressure be to pick Obama that she'd effectively have no choice.
Offer in hand, Obama can then handicap her chances against John McCain. If he thinks she'll win, he'll take the post, and become both vice president and heir apparent. If he thinks she'll lose, he'll run for the seasoning and exposure, or pass it up and save himself the tsouris; he'll be the heir apparent anyway. One way or another, then, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee, whether in 2008, 2012, 2016, or 2020 (that is, assuming this country's tendency to knock off its most promising politicians doesn't repeat itself.) Since he's a young man (and has quit smoking) he can afford the wait.
Hillary Clinton might lead in delegates and in the national polls (for now) but she has no such guarantees. This year is her only shot, and she may not get even that. She's not even a good bet for number two; why would Obama assume all of her baggage? We don't yet know who won Super Tuesday. But in one real sense, Barack Obama has already won even more. A presidential nomination: it's not a bad thing to have in your pocket. Maybe that's why he's in such a good mood these days.