Barack Obama is, finally, the presumptive U.S. presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. His main task pivots to the general election, starting with unifying the party and healing the divisions of class, gender and race. Fervent Republicans hope that in an election that can't be lost, the Democrats have chosen an unelectable candidate. They should be so lucky.
Obama is battered and bloodied, but also the battle-hardened mythic slayer of the famed and feared two-headed Clinton dragon. Moreover, the toughness of his fight with Hillary Clinton makes it less easy for the Republicans to define Obama on their terms; he is no longer just an empty suit giving great speeches. The contest could pit a genuine U.S. hero against the man of destiny. While honoring McCain as a true patriot, Obama has begun to sketch out his and his wife's compelling life narratives--including his white grandfather as a member of the greatest generation--as a metaphor for the American dream.
As the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, the remunerative world of successful law graduates beckoned. Obama could have become a Supreme Court clerk or gone straight into a top-end law firm. He chose instead to become a community organizer in Chicago, working across racial and other divides but also nursing a political ambition that aimed not for bit parts but for the stars. His message of unity resonates because he personifies the contradictions of the United States, but also its aspirations and ambitions as the city on the hill. He is the embodiment of the Republican Party's great propaganda: that in the United States, anyone with the talent, aptitude and the work ethic can realize the American dream. For them to attack Obama would be to admit the core Republican belief has been a lie.
Some Democrats still hanker for the dream ticket. Choosing Clinton would create additional problems without appreciably solving any of Obama's existing woes. She would compete with his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright as the mascot for getting out the Republican vote, contradict his main theme of changing Washington politics, and be an alternative, distracting center of media attention. There are others who could shore up the party's base among Southern whites or white women while also appealing to independents or soft Republicans.
Both McCain and Obama will claim the high road without leaving the low road. While the candidates will try to debate the issues directly, their surrogates may well dig deep into closets for skeletons. Clinton did Obama a favor by giving his weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities a full airing during the primaries. The country has moved on since Bill Clinton first ran 16 years ago. Race-based identity politics shows a generational divide. McCain is vulnerable to the countercharge of not being aware of how much the nation and the world have changed since he first entered politics.
The smear-and-fear tactics will likely revolve around depicting Obama as a cultural and intellectual elitist aloof from six-pack Joe and Jane, with Muslim family connections, an Arab middle name, and U.S.-hating associates that together make him inexperienced on foreign policy and unsafe on national security.
Obama parried this during the primary by expressing revulsion at the peddlers of hate and the merchants of slime, appealing instead to the better instincts of Americans. His message could resonate even more powerfully during the general election campaign as backlash against the Bush-Cheney years of terrify-and-rule. Should McCain surrogates resort to the fear-and-smear tactics, Obama can charge McCain with being either a hypocrite in claiming to run a civil and respectful campaign, or else ineffectual in controlling his campaign and therefore unfit to be president.
Unlike Obama, McCain's skeletons, including support and endorsements from fiery white priests and pastors, have not been subjected to the same fierce public and media scrutiny. Already several people have left McCain's camp owing to previous lobbying activities or connections. The Democrats have learned from the John Kerry experience that not responding swiftly to Swiftboating attacks can cause irreversible political damage.
McCain is weighed down by the millstones of an unpopular president and war and a tanking economy. The answer to the litmus test for incumbent administrations made famous by Ronald Reagan--are you better off today?--is a resounding, "Hell, no."
Not just the disaster, but its magnitude, is impossible to conceal. Big budget surpluses have turned into big debt; a nation that was at peace is fighting two nightmarish wars and could be plunged into a third; denial of climate change has put the planet in peril; stable energy prices have given way to skyrocketing prices at the gas pump; real household incomes have shrunk amid an economic expansion; and a United States at the pinnacle of global power and respect is held in nearly universal contempt and disrespect. Little wonder that pessimism prevails and people yearn for change.
President George W. Bush's disapproval rating (almost 70 percent) is the highest since Gallup began polling 70 years ago, higher even than Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter during the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis, respectively. More than 80 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction: hence the appeal of a candidate of change. Iraq, to which McCain is cleaved like a conjoined twin, is viewed as a mistake by 63 percent.
McCain already trails Obama by significant margins. The initial party sympathy has blown out from a 47-44 margin in favor of Democrats in 2004 (the last presidential election) to 51-38 today. A trio of recent Congressional losses in long-held "safe" seats has set off alarm bells among Republicans about their prospects in November.
Overall, Democrats have a 21-point advantage over the Republicans as the party best equipped to handle the nation's serious problems.
Team Obama has proven to be an impressive mix of strategists and managers, idealists and street-smarts. Equally astonishing has been their model of Internet-based fund-raising, grass-roots organization, long-range planning and political mobilization that skillfully exploits Obama's rock star appeal. Don't expect him to buy into McCain's challenge of town hall-style debates that would give McCain free access to Obama's rock star size crowds.
Obama has to avoid alienating his existing broad base, McCain has to work aggressively to expand a narrow support base. McCain is on the losing side on three big issues: the economy, health care and Iraq. McCain's maverick reputation will not be enough to insulate him against being the candidate of Washington. One of the smartest moves the Obama team made early on was to locate campaign headquarters outside Washington, in Chicago.
But McCain could win the argument on free trade and paint Obama as an anti-North American Free Trade Agreement panderer. If critics are to be believed, the free trade pact has miraculously exported jobs from every single member to the other two partner countries.
The contrasts not just in the color of their skin but also in age, freshness, vitality and energy--not to mention inspiring eloquence and uplifting vision--will be cruelly clear every time Obama and McCain share a stage.
Will concerns about age and race offset each other? Against persistent rumors of McCain's legendary short temper, Obama is cool personified, a model of grace under pressure.
Tellingly, through all the ups and downs, the triumphs and tribulations of a tough and grueling Democratic contest, Obama has managed to retain not just his good humor, poise and equanimity, but also the respect, admiration and affection of his staff. If the campaign is a pointer to how a president will run his administration, the stars seem aligned.