President Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency was been remarkably smooth, but days of testing are ahead, said Newsweek columnist and Washington correspondent Howard Fineman.
“He went from being an obscure state senator to president of the United States in the blink of an eye,” said Fineman, who delivered the 32nd annual Joe Creason Lecture at the University of Kentucky Tuesday night. “He hasn’t in his career yet truly faced the dark night of the soul. I don’t know what that’s going to be.”
But Fineman said challenges such as the budget, lingering problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and criticism of his administration are sure to come.
Of all the political figures Fineman has covered, “I’ve never met one more comfortable in his own skin than Barack Obama,” he said. “He’s just Mr. Cool.”
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Unlike other presidents who worked hard to be liked and to make others like them, Fineman said Obama seems to be “perfectly at ease in the limelight,” a politician who “isn’t trying so hard to convince me.”
“The minus is, nobody’s like that, especially when they’re running for president,” he said. “There has to be another Obama besides the Mr. Cool. We haven’t seen it yet. We will see it.”
In addition to having strong political skills, one of the reasons Obama has been riding such a high wave of public popularity is that “George Bush confused and divided and sapped the will of his own party,” with his policies on Iraq, handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and record-breaking deficit spending, Fineman said.
In opposition to the value his party had historically placed on small government, Fineman said, Bush also expanded the role of government with policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, leaving Republicans “weak and confused.”
Fineman, who is also a political analyst for NBC News, drew several comparisons between Obama and Kentucky statesman Henry Clay.
“I would describe Barack Obama as Henry Clay with better luck,” he said.
Like Clay, he said Obama is a “dealmaker” and a “helluva lawyer.”
As such, he said Obama likes complexity and is “always looking for the balance point.”
The drawback, he said, is that his legal background did not include any experience with business and economics.
In response to a question from the audience about Sen. Mitch McConnell’s role in Washington, Fineman began by describing him as “one of the toughest, savviest, canniest political figures I’ve ever run across.”
“I’m not like some reporters or editorial writers,” he said. “I assume there is a kernel of humanity in everybody I cover -- and that includes Mitch McConnell.”
Fineman, who has interviewed every major presidential candidate since 1984, has significant Kentucky ties.
He began his career at The Courier-Journal, where he worked from 1973 to 1980, and he holds a law degree from the University of Louisville.
Beth Barnes, director of the UK School of Journalism and Telecommunications, said Fineman provided “a perspective that we don’t always hear.”
“People were saying ‘thank you’ as they came in,” she said. “I think he absolutely delivered.”