As he nears the end of his time as President, George W. Bush is deeply unpopular and will leave behind a series of domestic and foreign policy blunders as his unenviable legacy. Given that reality, since the time that he locked up the Democratic nomination as the party's candidate for President, the election has been Senator Barack Obama's to lose. He seems to have taken three fateful steps towards that end. Not one by itself is fatal. Taken together, they spell serious trouble for his campaign and go a long way towards explaining his continued slippage in the opinion polls and the tightening race.
The first misstep was to cross the elusive yet electorally explosive line from the presumptive party nominee to a presumptuous President in waiting. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote an article headlined "President Obama Continues Hectic Victory Tour" (July 30). The comedian Jon Stewart joked that when Mr. Obama was in the Middle East recently, he 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. In this case, Mr. Obama's greatest asset against John McCain is his mesmerising eloquence and his rock star mass appeal. In a television ad launched on August 1, the McCain campaign mocks Mr. Obama as the chosen one, the Messiah. By the end of the ad, Mr. Obama has seemingly been elevated from the Messiah to God himself when, as the Red Sea parts at his command, his mock presidential seal is seen rising from the waters.
Earlier, the Republicans had aired another ad in which Mr. Obama, interspersed between Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, was derided as the greatest current celebrity. (While Mr. McCain claimed to be having fun with such humorous ads, Ms Hilton's mother, Kathy Hilton, says she is not amused.) The ad serves two purposes. Ostensibly, it tries to solidify the main public narrative of Mr. Obama as someone who is celebrity conscious, craving publicity and mass adulation-cum-adoration, but also someone who is as empty headed as the most glitzy celebrities. Subliminally, it plays to the racial fears of two young white girls in the company of a black man.
Mr. Obama himself has provided fodder for the caricature, at times seeming to be stone deaf to humour that is always directed at leading public figures as though he should be beyond caricature that is part and parcel of public life; 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 (web edition, Aug. 1) that "McCain has zeroed in on the one kernel of truth that can support a web of lies." So when Mr. 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 America, 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.
Mr. Obama could perhaps have weathered this line of attack if he still had his legion of idealistic and enthusiastic admirers and supporters. In fact, large numbers began to feel disenchanted, disillusioned and betrayed as he tacked decisively to the centre of American 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 antagonise the party base, which tends to be more ideological than the floating votes of independents and moderates in the middle who determine the outcome of elections. Once the party nomination is secured, candidates shift to the centre.
There were two problems for Mr. 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 Ms 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. And, of course, the diehard Clinton supporters not only feel vindicated; they are even more resolute in rejecting Mr. Obama.
The other difficulty for Mr. Obama was the speed with which he changed course and the number of items on which he tacked swiftly to the centre. Nor is it over yet. On August 1, as a new opinion poll showed that a majority of Americans favour offshore drilling to cushion the shock of the inexorable rise in oil and petrol prices, Mr. Obama softened his previously firm opposition to offshore drilling. He had already either retreated from or, at best, refined and nuanced his evolving position on a number of hot button issues. One of the most momentous was voting for 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. Other major policy somersaults included abandoning the promise of public financing for the campaign, softening his stance on gun control, equivocating on the status of Jerusalem, and endorsing church-based institutions to deliver public services.
A major reason why Mr. Obama finds himself boxed in a corner by the above two developments is the third failing of his campaign, namely his seeming inability to go on the offensive. In any game, the side that plays entirely on the defence in its own half cannot score and therefore cannot win. The best it can hope for is a scoreless tie. Mr. Obama got away with this in the primary, despite having such a target rich opponent, in part because Ms Clinton was the one who entered the contest as the anointed one, in part because it was assumed that Mr. Obama was too much of a gentleman to attack her. But he did repeatedly promise to go forcefully after his Republican opponent once he was the Democratic nominee. He is yet to do so and is running out of time. The failure to play offence means that the Republicans are succeeding in defining Mr. Obama on their terms while Mr. McCain continues to elude the limp barbs aimed at him. If the best that the Obama camp can do is to repeat ad infinitum the stale and wearying line that a vote for McCain would be a third term for George W. Bush, they can expect their slide in the polls to continue.
The net result of the three false steps has been to turn the election into a referendum on Mr. Obama. A deliberate intent of the McCain campaign, this has the collateral benefit of airbrushing the electorally toxic Bush out of the election picture. A recent poll found that about half the voters are focussed on the kind of President Mr. Obama would be, while only one-quarter are asking the same question of Mr. McCain. On a referendum on Mr. 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 Mr. Obama the election.
But if the Democrats can successfully turn the election into a choice between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, the net difference in positives and negatives between the two, in particular the very traits that the Republicans are attacking in Mr. Obama, 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 Mr. McCain's fitness to lead the country (General Wesley Clark was quite right: being shot down in Vietnam and enduring several years of prison and torture make Mr. McCain a hero but do 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 Mr. Obama and humanise him instead; highlight some key issues on which he has shown backbone and the courage of convictions in contrast to vacillations, evasions and backflips by Mr. McCain; and target each and every one of Mr. McCain's perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities with a relentless, laser-like focus. Time for the tough and ambitious Chicago politician to take command of the campaign.