Has the Obama election express stalled? His camp believes that jealous jabs at him may close the gap in public opinion polls in the short run. But the accumulating dribble of images--the big joyous crowds in Germany, his cute daughters, beautiful wife and grandmother in Hawaii--will make Americans feel familiar with him, visualize him on foreign soil and see him as both human and presidential. Perhaps.
Given the unprecedented unpopularity of U.S. President George W. Bush, the election is Barack Obama's to lose. He has taken four fateful steps toward that end that, taken together, spell serious trouble and go a long way toward explaining the tightening race.
First, he crossed the elusive yet electorally explosive line from presumptive party nominee to presumptuous president-in-waiting. Comedian Jon Stewart joked that in the Middle East, Obama stopped by the manger in Bethlehem to visit his birthplace. To knock him off his faux divine pedestal, the Republicans are reprising the Karl Rove tactic of taking their rival's strongest suit and turning it into a liability. One ad mocks Obama as the chosen one, the Messiah. Another derides him as an empty-headed celebrity, such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, craving publicity and mass adulation-cum-adoration. The latter also plays subliminally to racial fears of two young white girls in the company of a black man.
Obama himself has provided fodder for the caricature, at times seeming to be tone deaf to humor that is always directed at leading public figures, at other times using words and language that suggest he may have bought into the hype surrounding his candidacy, and, if more rarely, using words that can be taken out of context to attack him scurrilously.
Eleanor Clift remarked in Newsweek that "[John] McCain has zeroed in on the one kernel of truth that can support a web of lies."
So when Obama explained that this election was not about him, that the American people were desperate to get rid of the Bush administration and the world, too, was ready for a change of administration, policy and tone in Washington, and that he was merely the symbol of this yearning and hunger for a better United States, the Republicans, leaving out the contextual parts of the statement, went after him for claiming to be the symbol of a better future. That's politics.
Second, many of Obama's idealistic and enthusiastic admirers and supporters began to feel disenchanted, disillusioned and betrayed as he tacked decisively to the center of U.S. politics as soon as Hillary Clinton conceded. That is standard fare for all candidates of both major parties. During the primary campaign, they cannot afford to antagonize the party base, which tends to be more ideological than the floating votes of independents and moderates in the middle who determine election outcomes. Once the party nomination is secured, candidates shift to the center.
There were two problems for Obama with this familiar syndrome. First, he had promised to be the personification (Messiah?) of a new kind of politics, a conviction politician with a strong moral compass that would guide his politics. Instead, he lent credence to the many critics from Hillary Clinton's camp who had alleged all along that he relied on content-free eloquence and slogans, that he was a false prophet who would show soon enough that if the voters did not like his principles, why, he had many others he could use.
The other difficulty for Obama was the speed with which he changed course and the number of items on which he tacked swiftly to the center: offshore drilling, public financing for the campaign, gun control, the status of Jerusalem, church-based institutions delivery of public services and a new surveillance law that granted retroactive immunity to telecommunications operators for violating citizens' privacy laws by complying with requests for intelligence intercepts by the government.
The third failing of Obama's campaign is a seeming inability to go on the offensive. The Republicans are succeeding in defining Obama on their terms while McCain continues to elude the limp barbs aimed at him. The stale and wearying line that a vote for McCain would be a third term for Bush makes Obama into a whiner when he needs to look tough. Many Democrats, haunted still by memories of 2000 and 2004 and frustrated at Obama's failure to open a counterattacking second negative track against McCain beyond the Bush policy track, note how the most effective response to McCain's celebrity attack came from Paris Hilton, who did a spoof ad of her own in which she dismissed McCain as "the oldest celebrity in the world, like super world." The McCain ad's punchline was Obama may be the world's leading celebrity, but was he ready to lead the United States? Hilton declared that she was, like, totally ready to lead.
Fourth, the Democratic convention is turning from a coronation of the winning candidate into a celebration of the defeated one. Chelsea, Bill and Hillary Clinton will all have starring roles. This reinforces voter perceptions of Obama as weak, unable to close the deal, and someone who will lack the strength of character to tackle the tough guys and issues in the world.
The net result of the four false steps has been to turn the election into a referendum on Obama. A deliberate intent of the McCain campaign, this has the collateral benefit of airbrushing the electorally toxic Bush out of the election picture. About half the voters are focused on the kind of president Obama would be, while only one-quarter are asking the same question of McCain. On a referendum on Obama, the combination of an astonishingly light resume for the most powerful office in the world, lingering character doubts, dubious judgment calls, and the fear of a leap of faith on an essentially unknown candidate would all feed into voter unease and cost Obama the election.
But if the Democrats can successfully turn the election into a choice between Obama and McCain, the net difference in positives and negatives between the two, in particular the very traits that the Republicans are attacking in Obama--intellectual heft, youth, eloquence, ability to inspire the masses--will work decisively to the Democrats' advantage.
Their game plan therefore should be to draw contrasts between the two candidates as sharply, pointedly and often as the opportunity arises, to question McCain's fitness to lead the country--Gen. Wesley Clark was quite right: Being shot down in Vietnam and enduring several years of prison and torture makes McCain a hero but does not qualify him to be president--to rip apart his policies, to hone in on his flip flops, inconsistencies and evasions, to reinforce doubts about his notoriously short temper and so on.
The Democrats need to reverse course rapidly in deifying Obama and humanize him instead; highlight some key issues on which Obama has shown backbone and the courage of convictions in contrast to the vacillations, evasions and backflips of McCain; and target each and every one of McCain's perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities with a relentless, laserlike focus.
It is time for the tough and ambitious Chicago politician to take command of the campaign.