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Yes, Obama Has Substance to Match the Charisma Thing

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Of late, reporters have been asking more pointed questions about Senator Obama's specific proposals and policies should he be elected president. Such scrutiny is appropriate and welcome. It speaks to the Senator's increased stature and to the real likelihood that he will win.

Underneath the questioning, though, is an implication that Obama supporters are unduly swayed by his charisma, and that his gullible followers are swept up in a cult of personality that lacks substance. There is the implicit argument that America elected an appealing guy last time around, and that we shouldn't be seduced again.

If the Obama campaign is a cult, it includes a remarkable number of notably ungullible, notably non-follower-type people. His advisors and supporters include many of the nation's most distinguished economists, legal scholars, and political scientists. It includes a striking number of policy experts and elected politicians who worked closely with both Clintons.

Senator Obama's personal qualifications do not call to mind the towel-snapping frat boy who now occupies the nation's highest office. Senator Obama has taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and was president of the Harvard Law Review, two notable non-starstruck arenas of personal advancement. He has held elective office longer than Senator Clinton has. The two hold very similar policy positions and would employ many of the same experts in the next administration.

When you look past the position papers, I don't see that Senator Clinton has the surpassing record of legislative mastery she claims to possess. I don't see that she has greater substance as a manager, either. Hard-nosed journalist Joe Klein notes that Obama has run "a smarter, more rigorous campaign." Based on the campaign, "Obama has proved himself the best executive by far."

Today the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal , the largest paper in Wisconsin, endorsed Senator Obama. Its editorial board concluded:

The Obama campaign has been derisively and incorrectly described as more rock tour than political campaign and his supporters as more starry-eyed groupies than thoughtful voters. If detractors in either party want to continue characterizing the Obama campaign this way, they will have seriously underestimated both the electorate's hunger for meaningful change in how the nation is governed and the candidate himself. In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editorial Board on Wednesday, the first-term senator proved himself adept at detail and vision. They are not mutually exclusive.

Speaking for myself, I have some very practical reasons to celebrate Barack Obama's ability to inspire people behind progressive causes. You have a better chance of being a fine candidate and president if you have this talent than if you don't. Charisma isn't necessary in a candidate, any more than height is necessary to win an NBA championship, but it helps. Hillary Clinton has had four years as the dominant front-runner to make her case. Although she began with every advantage, she has not done this as well as Senator Obama has.

This is only partly due to his superior eloquence and electability. It also reflects the reality that he is offering something important that Senator Clinton cannot.

Don't just take my word for it. Here is what many of the nation's leading historians say:

Historians for Obama

Our country is in serious trouble. The gap between the wealthy elite and the working majority grows ever larger, tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance and others risk bankruptcy when they get seriously ill, and many public schools do a poor job of educating the next generation. Due to the arrogant, inept foreign policy of the current administration, more people abroad mistrust and fear the United States than at any time since the height of the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, global warming speeds toward an unprecedented catastrophe. Many Republicans and overwhelming numbers of Independents and Democrats believe that, under George W. Bush, the nation has badly lost its way. The 2008 election thus comes at a critical time in the history of the United States and the world.

We endorse Barack Obama for president because we think he is the candidate best able to address and start to solve these profound problems. As historians, we understand that no single individual, even a president, leads alone or outside a thick web of context. As Abraham Lincoln wrote to a friend during the Civil War, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

However, a president can alter the mood of the nation, making changes possible that once seemed improbable. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and kept the nation united; Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Americans to embrace Social Security and more democratic workplaces; John F. Kennedy advanced civil rights and an anti-poverty program.

Barack Obama has the potential to be that kind of president. He has the varied background of a global citizen: his father was African, his stepfather Indonesian, his mother worked in the civil rights movement, and he spent several years of his childhood overseas. As an adult, he has been a community organizer, a law professor, and a successful politician -- both at the state and national level. These experiences have given him an acute awareness of the inequalities of race and class, while also equipping him to speak beyond them.

Obama's platform is ambitious, yet sensible. He calls for negotiating the abolition of nuclear weapons, providing universal and affordable health insurance, combating poverty by adding resources and discouraging destructive habits, investing in renewable energy sources, and engaging with unfriendly nations to ease conflicts that could otherwise lead to war. He takes more forthright stands on these issues than do his major Democratic competitors.

But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness - or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption.

As president, Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world. But we believe he is that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called "the civic genius of the people." We invite other historians to add your name to this statement. You can do so by contacting mk8@georgetown.edu and/or Ralph Luker, ralphluker@mindspring.com .

Manan Ahmed, Cliopatria*
Shawn Leigh Alexander, University of Kansas
Catherine Allgor, University of California, Riverside
Laura Anker, SUNY, Old Westbury
Joyce Appleby, University of California, Los Angeles
Ray Arsenault, University of South Florida

Robert Baker, Georgia State University
Lewis V. Baldwin, Vanderbilt University
Christopher Bates, California State Polytechnic, Pomona
Rosalyn Baxandall, SUNY/Old Westbury
Robert L. Beisner, American University
Doron Ben-Atar, Fordham University
William C. Berman, University of Toronto
David Blight, Yale University
Ruth Bloch, University of California, Los Angeles
Daniel Bluestone, University of Virginia
Edward J. Blum, San Diego State University
Carolyn A. Brown, Rutgers University
Mari Jo Buhle, Brown University
Paul Buhle, Brown University

Randolph Campbell, University of North Texas
Charles Capper, Boston University
Clayborne Carson, Stanford University
John Chavez, Southern Methodist University
William Cohen, Hope College
Dennis Cordell, Southern Methodist University
Mary F. Corey, University of California, Los Angeles
George Cotkin, California Polytechnic Institute
Edward Countryman, Southern Methodist University
Daniel W. Crofts, The College of New Jersey

Robert Dallek, Boston University
Jared N. Day, Carnegie Mellon University
John d'Entremont, Randolph College
Dennis C. Dickerson, Vanderbilt University
David Doyle, Jr., Southern Methodist University
David V. Du Fault, San Diego State University
W. Marvin Dulaney, College of Charleston

Gretchen Cassel Eick, Friends University
Carolyn Eisenberg, Hofstra University

J. Michael Farmer, University of Texas, Dallas
Michael Fellman, Simon Fraser University
Antonio Feros, University of Pennsylvania
Peter Filene, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Kenneth Fones-Wolf, University of West Virginia
William E. Forbath, University of Texas, Austin
Shannon Frystak, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania

Matthew Gabriele, Virginia Tech
Lloyd Gardner, Rutgers University
David Gellman, DePauw University
James Gilbert, University of Maryland
Toni Gilpin, Chicago, Illinois
Rebecca A. Goetz, Rice University
Warren Goldstein, University of Hartford
Linda Gordon, New York University
Anthony T. Grafton, Princeton University
Will Gravely, University of Denver
James Green, University of Massachusetts, Boston
Sara M. Gregg, Iowa State University
Robert Griffith, American University
Michael Grossberg, Indiana University
James Grossman, Newberry Library
Carol S. Gruber, William Paterson University
Joshua Guild, Princeton University
Roland L. Guyotte, University of Minnesota, Morris

David Hall, Harvard University
Kenneth Hamilton, Southern Methodist University
J. William Harris, University of New Hampshire
Nancy A. Hewitt, Rutgers University
Jonathan Holloway, Yale University
Jeffrey Houghtby, Iowa State University
Tera W. Hunter, Princeton University
Harold Hyman, Rice University

Maurice Jackson, Georgetown University
Lisa Jacobson, University of California, Santa Barbara
Randal Jelks, Calvin College
John Jentz, Marquette University
Benjamin H. Johnson, Southern Methodist University

David A. Johnson, Portland State University
Robert KC Johnson, Brooklyn College
Jennifer M. Jones, Rutgers University
Patrick D. Jones, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Peniel E. Joseph, Brandeis University

Michael Kazin, Georgetown University
Ari Kelman, University of California, Davis
Richard H. King, University of Nottingham
Sarah Knott, Indiana University

Melinda Lawson, Union College
Steven Lawson, Rutgers University
Jackson Lears, Rutgers University
Alan Lessoff, Illinois State University
Edward T. Linenthal, Indiana University
William A. Link, University of Florida
James Livingston, Rutgers University
Paul K. Longmore, San Francisco State University
Ralph E. Luker, Cliopatria

J. Fred MacDonald, Northeastern Illinois University
Chandra Manning, Georgetown University
Norman Markowitz, Rutgers University
Kevin Mattson, Ohio University
Martha May, Western Connecticut State University
Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Harvard University
Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University
Robert S. McElvaine, Millsaps College
Marjorie McLellan, Wright State University
James McPherson, Princeton University
Tony Michels, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Walter Moss, Eastern Michigan University
Todd Moye, University of North Texas

Joan Neuberger, University of Texas, Austin
Michelle Nickerson, University of Texas, Dallas

David O'Brien, College of the Holy Cross
William L. O'Neill, Rutgers University

William A. Pencak, Pennsylvania State University
Claire Potter, Wesleyan University
Michael Punke, University of Montana

David Quigley, Boston College

Stephen G. Rabe, University of Texas, Dallas
Albert J. Raboteau, Princeton University
Monica A. Rankin, University of Texas, Dallas
Janice Reiff, University of California, Los Angeles
Leo Ribuffo, George Washington University
Natalie J. Ring, University of Texas, Dallas
Ruth Rosen, University of California, Berkeley
Peter Rothstein, Juniata College
Edward B. Rugemer, Yale University

Douglas C. Sackman, University of Puget Sound
Leonard J. Sadosky, Iowa State University
Nick Salvatore, Cornell University
Brian Sandberg, Northern Illinois University
John Savage, Lehigh University
Martha Saxton, Amherst College
Ellen W. Schrecker, Yeshiva University
Rachel F. Seidman, Duke University
Brett L. Shadle, Virginia Tech
James Sidbury, University of Texas at Austin
Daniel J. Singal, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Manisha Sinha, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Harvard Sitkoff, University of New Hampshire
Daniel Soyer, Fordham University
Paul Spickard, University of California, Santa Barbara
Brian Steele, University of Alabama, Birmingham
James Brewer Stewart, Macalester College
Jeffrey Stewart, George Mason University
Mary Stroll, University of California, San Diego

David Thelen, Indiana University
Jeffrey Trask, New York University
Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs, Helena, Montana
Bruce M. Tyler, University of Louisville

Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of Virginia
Kara Dixon Vuic, Bridgewater College

David J. Weber, Southern Methodist University
Barbara Weinstein, New York University
Richard Weiss, University of California, Los Angeles
Kathleen Wellman, Southern Methodist University
Daniel Wickberg, University of Texas, Dallas
Craig Steven Wilder, Dartmouth College
Margaret Williams, William Patterson University
R. Hal Williams, Southern Methodist University
David W. Wills, Amherst College
Charters Wynn, University of Texas, Austin

Susan Yohn, Hofstra University

Eli Zaretsky, New School for Social Research

*Institutional affiliations are listed for identification purposes only and, of course, do not indicate an institutional endorsement.