Obama fights to overcome view he's inexperienced

BOSTON -- Democrats Barack Obama and Deval Patrick share a friendship, similar résumés, a political consultant and the complicated expectations that come with being African-American politicians.

Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, this week left behind his past as a former Justice Department official under President Clinton and threw his support to Obama, who is battling for votes against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Patrick promised to mobilize his political network to canvass for Obama in next-door New Hampshire, site of the nation's first primary.

The two friends sat down with USA TODAY late Tuesday for a joint interview, in which they talked about their belief in an inspirational and inclusive approach to politics and their conviction that a lengthy political résumé is unnecessary and even counterproductive.

Obama and Patrick have each faced charges of political inexperience and the assumption that their appeal will be primarily to black voters, the governor said. Both, however, won their current offices with broad-based support.

"People made a mistake … by supposing, presuming, that our appeal would be in certain discrete corners of people who looked like us and thought like us," Patrick said. "The whole point was to reach across divides and invite people who had checked out to check back in. And they did."

Obama said their way of practicing politics is "occasionally messy because we're not trying to massage and manage and work the inside game." He calls Clinton "the dominant brand" in their party.

Patrick, 51, was raised in Chicago, where Obama, 46, launched his career. Both are Harvard Law School grads.

In 2004, Patrick supported Obama's successful bid for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, before his own run for office two years later. "We've … fed off each other's success," Obama said. "After I won, Deval comes to my office in Washington …"

"In the basement," Patrick interjected.

"He says, 'I want to run for governor.' I said, 'Let's go.' " Obama said.

National polls show Obama trails Clinton by a wide margin: 50%-21% in the most recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.

The gap between Obama and Clinton is smaller among black voters, but she still leads by double digits in the USA TODAY/Gallup Polls.

Black voters are weighing candidate appeal against electability, says Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts. "African-American voters are really being very serious about their choice this year because they yearn for victory."

The Associated Press found in August that black voters viewed Obama's credentials more favorably than whites. Two-thirds of blacks said Obama, still in his first Senate term, is sufficiently experienced to be president. Almost half of white respondents said he was not.

"Race is a factor in this. There are going to be some folks who don't vote for me. They may couch it in terms of experience, but they're uncomfortable with me," Obama said. "That's a very small minority."

A more "powerful" obstacle, he said, is those who say his experience is not the right kind for the White House.

Obama said the conventional wisdom of the "wise men and women of Washington," including the media, is "you haven't been there enough, you haven't gone to the Washington salon, the institute breakfasts." Obama said the same people "would be giving me a hard time as a callow youth even if I weren't an African-American."

Donna Brazile, who as Al Gore's manager in 2000 was the first black woman to run a White House campaign, believes Obama's experience is being judged unfairly. "I don't think there's a racial aspect to it," she said, noting President Bush was also questioned on his political experience when he was challenged to name several foreign leaders and could not.

Still, Brazile notes that Obama's résumé— which includes stints as a community organizer and law professor — may be a plus. "There's clearly a hunger for the kind of experience that he would bring to the presidency," she said.