The ‘Female Obama’ tries to be just familiar enough

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It’s deja vu for Ohio Democrats. At the state party dinner Sunday night, the star attraction was an exciting speaker who’s a new-generation voice for change, a person of color with biracial parents who has been in the Senate for about 20 minutes.

This senator hails from California, not Illinois, but the message, too, recalled the one that Sen. Barack Obama used to test the waters for his 2008 presidential run.

“There are such powerful voices that are trying to sow hate and division among us,” Sen. Kamala Harris told the enthusiastic Ohio audience. “But the vast majority of us as Americans have so much more in common than what divides us.”

The freshman lawmaker is a talked-about commodity in Democratic circles these days, even more so after the raucous Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, where she was a forceful opponent of his confirmation. “He tried to intimidate her, and she gave it right back to him,” said Rebecca Doss, a Columbus nurse who saw Harris at an earlier political event on Sunday.

While the comparisons with Obama are inevitable, political analogies tend to miss the mark. Democrats for decades looked for the next John Kennedy. For more than a quarter-century, Republicans have longed for the next Ronald Reagan; they certainly didn’t get him with President Donald Trump. It may take ages before anyone emerges with the unique talents of Obama.

Yet ever since a decade ago, when the late journalist Gwen Ifill called Harris “the female Barack Obama” on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” the connection has stuck. At the Ohio party dinner, Tony Pinto, a small businessman from Willoughby, used almost the same words, calling Harris “a young, female version of the president.”

That’s a tough benchmark for any Democratic politician to meet. When asked about Obama on Sunday, Harris sighed, expressed admiration for the 44th president, and declared, “I’m my own person, not someone else.”

The 53-year-old former district attorney and California attorney general is in demand from Democrats around the country as they campaign for congressional and statehouse seats in this year’s midterm election. This also is the season when potential presidential candidates test their own prospects. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was in Iowa over the weekend.

Unlike many ambitious politicians, Harris acknowledges that she’s interested in a presidential run as she campaigns for colleagues on the Nov. 6 ballot. (It was hard to be coy when her speeches were interrupted by shouts of “Harris 2020.”)

“At some point after, we’ll think about that,” she said in an interview. “I’m not going to kid you.”

The Harris appeal is as a fresh face with solid progressive credentials, but she’s not an ideologue in the mold of Sen. Bernie Sanders. She was a cosponsor in 2017 of a Sanders bill to introduce government-sponsored health insurance nationwide, but also talks more cautiously about moving toward less radical forms of universal coverage. She’s sharply critical of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but unlike many progressives says she wants to reform it, not abolish it.

She is a mainstream progressive Democrat on economic issues and a down-the-line liberal on social issues like guns, abortion and gay rights.

While Obama generally avoided talking explicitly about race during the early days of his presidential run, she confronts it more directly, urging Democrats to “speak truth” on matters that make many voters uncomfortable.

“Racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism are real in this country,” she told the Ohio Democrats Sunday evening.

Last year, when national Democrats went to hear her speak, she fell short of expectations. She has gotten better. After the Sunday dinner, the Ohio party chair David Pepper said that the feedback he got was “very strong.”

During the Kavanaugh hearings, she flashed her prosecutorial background, asking sharp, direct questions. There was one point of confusion when she repeatedly asked, and Kavanaugh repeatedly ducked, whether he had discussed the investigation of Trump campaign links to Russian election interference by special counsel Robert Mueller with anyone at the law firm that represents Trump. The issue was left hanging puzzlingly in the air and the exchange ended, as her hometown newspaper the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “with a thud.”

Republicans accused her of demagoguery. Democrats were delighted. “Did she kick ass on the Senate Judiciary Committee?” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown asked a cheering crowd at a weekend political event.

The 2020 presidential election is both many months away and right around the corner. The campaign begins in full right after Nov. 6. For Democrats, it’s wide open, but one of the few certainties is there will be a woman on the ticket. If Harris runs, the only woman who starts in a stronger position is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. If a man is selected, the Californian would be on the short list of potential running mates.

Some observers, including Democrats in California and Washington, D.C., say she has promise but wonder if she’s ready for that big next step.

It’s a fair question. But it’s one that was often asked 12 years ago about another freshman senator. Yes, the one from Illinois.

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