DES MOINES, Iowa -- After puzzling for almost a year now over the meaning of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential run, I've concluded that his candidacy represents an odd paradox about readiness.
Mr. Obama's doubters - chief and most vocal among them, fellow Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - say he is not quite ready for the awesome responsibilities of the White House, nor even the hurly-burly and inevitable attacks of the general election. Team Clinton warns that while Senator Obama has a promising future, he is ahead of his moment.
The paradox derives from the fact that millions of Americans - not only Democratic partisans, but a surprising number of independents and even Republicans - say they are ready to be led by him. Reiterating his campaign's themes of change and hope, Mr. Obama has attempted to turn the readiness critique into an asset.
"There are people who say I haven't been in Washington long enough, that we need to stew and season him a little to boil all of the hope out of him," scoffed Mr. Obama at a Sunday night event in Des Moines. That line, and his self-deprecating quip about being dismissed as an idealistic "hope-monger," drew laughs from his audience.
Mr. Obama is a political novelty, to be sure. This week, he reached the midpoint of his rookie term, which had barely begun before he set his presidential exploratory activities in motion.
"We've said from the beginning that there will be those people who think you need an extensive Washington r?sum? to be president," Obama adviser David Axelrod told me after Sunday night's event. "But by no means do we think they are a majority of Iowans or a majority of Americans."
Nor are Mr. Obama's biographical novelties limited to his Washington experience. He is an African-American, the son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother. Unlike those of the vast majority of African-Americans, his ancestors did not live through American slavery and legalized segregation. This makes him a much less racialized candidate than, say, the Rev. Al Sharpton four years ago.
And then there is his age: Senator Obama is just 46.
Surely many of my fellow fortysomethings, not to mention millions of high-turnout senior citizens with children my age, would find a bit jarring the idea that America's next president could be a tail-end baby boomer who finished his schooling only last decade (Mr. Obama completed his Harvard law degree in 1991). Should he win, Mr. Obama, born in August 1961, would become the first president born after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated.
Rejecting the notion that he is not ready or the country is not ready for him, Mr. Obama likes to paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s entreaties about the "fierce urgency of now," adding that there is "something to being too late."
The first major test for this young, inexperienced black senator from urban Chicago comes here in Iowa, a state where the small, clubby caucuses are dominated by older, white suburban and rural voters. In that sense, to borrow a line from Frank Sinatra, if he can make it here, he ought to be able to make it anywhere.
But the real question is this: Beyond Iowa, would the novelty of an Obama presidency by itself be capable of truly transforming national politics? I think so - and the evidence is found not in the man or his message, but in the expressed appetite in the country for difference for difference's sake.
Leadership, after all, is a symbiotic process over which politicians only have partial control; inherent in any leader's success is the public's willingness to be led, a reality that cannot be compelled by the fiats of politicians or ginned up by the rhetorical flourishes of clever wordsmiths.
Being different does not presuppose leading differently, of course, and perhaps a President Obama would succumb to the same pitfalls as recent Oval Office occupants. Perhaps his calls for change would quickly be reduced to slogans. And perhaps Americans like to whine about their desire for change but are in fact quite committed to the ideological divides and policy gridlock that define our politics today.
But maybe, just maybe, this time around, America is ready for a young, black, hope-filled candidate whose campaign T-shirts boast that he's "ready to go."
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.