The Democratic Party is having one of its periodic freak-outs. John McCain has pulled ahead in a few polls, and the party's many doom-and-gloomers are fretting that Barack Obama is frittering away a can't-lose election, lagging behind generic Democrats in a generic Democratic year. They worry that he's too professorial, too nuanced, too dispassionate, too above-the-fray cool. They want him to run straight at McCain's distortions, throw some fastballs, show voters he's a scrapper. They fear that his message of change has grown stale, that his efforts to paint McCain as another George W. Bush aren't working, that Sarah Palin flat-out stole his mojo. They're even second-guessing his tactical decisions: Why did he send staff to the state of Georgia? Why isn't he using the Wall Street meltdown to bash McCain's support for privatizing Social Security? And why did he go to Beverly Hills for a swanky fund raiser with Barbra Streisand?
To which Obama has responded: Relax. "This campaign needs to keep its focus," Obama told jittery supporters in a conference call last week. The race, he said, is still "ours to lose." Call it confidence or arrogance, discipline or stubbornness, but Obama is not a freak-out kind of guy. He still believes this is a change election and that he's the change candidate; when it comes to strategy, he basically intends to stay the course and encourage his supporters to chill out. "People wonder sometimes, 'He seems pretty calm,'" Obama told a star-studded audience at the Streisand fund raiser. "The reason I am calm is, I have confidence in the American people." Yes, McCain recently adopted the mantra of "change" as well, easing away from "experience" after putting Sarah Palin on the ticket, but Obama sees that as proof that the election will be fought on his turf. His campaign will make adjustments--including a sharper focus on women voters, as well as harsher attacks by running mate Joe Biden and through television advertisements--but Obama's overriding message will still be a version of lipstick-on-a-pig: the 72-year-old Republican who supports Bush's foreign policies and economic policies is not the guy who's really bringing change. "No one is going to move him off his message in a manic moment," says Obama supporter Claire McCaskill, a Democratic Senator from Missouri.
Obama's case against panic goes like this: Bush is the least popular President in modern history, and McCain was on TV bragging during the Republican primary that he voted with Bush over 90% of the time. The economy is tanking, and McCain is still insisting that the fundamentals remain strong; he's also been a consistent vote against financial regulation, a strong supporter of investing Social Security benefits in the stock market and a recent convert to the Bush tax cuts. Voters prefer Obama's positions to McCain's on almost every major policy issue, and the Republican brand still seems toxic. The Obama team believes, as campaign manager David Plouffe says, that "at the end of the day, this is going to come down to the choice: Do I want the McCain agenda or the Obama agenda?" Plouffe might have added that party Chicken Littles predicted Obama's demise a year ago, when they said Hillary Clinton would bury him unless he got nasty. Before Iowa, they doubted his ability to attract white votes; before his Iraq trip, they warned that a gaffe could doom his candidacy; before his convention, they said lingering resentments from the primary could overshadow his coronation. On Sept. 8, the New York Times reported on Democratic fears that Obama was struggling to raise money, shortly before he announced a record-breaking $66 million haul for August.
To which the fretters reply: Then why isn't he winning? If the fundamentals are so strong for Obama, why has McCain wiped out his lead?
The case against calm in Demworld begins with the idea that Obama isn't guaranteed the White House just because the fundamentals tilt his way. Whatever the mood, Democratic veterans warn, campaigns matter. And McCain's campaign has been much more aggressive about trying to define the debate and seize news cycles; when MSNBC's Joe Scarborough was asked during the initial lipstick-on-a-pig spat what the media would talk about in two days, he replied, "Whatever the McCain campaign wants us to talk about, because the McCain campaign is assertive." The media have dutifully fact-checked the McCain campaign's mischaracterizations of Obama's tax plans and its howler that Obama wants to teach kindergartners about sex. But the Obama camp has often seemed flat-footed in the face of nonbeanbag politics, as if it didn't think it had to dignify Republican smears with a response. "Obama wants the campaign to be about issues, because he wins on issues," says a Democratic consultant who believes Obama will ultimately prevail. "But he doesn't always get to decide what the campaign is about."
Ever since Palin took the stage, Obama's aides have seemed especially clueless about how to react to her and almost blind to her cultural power as a middle-class mom with five kids and an NRA card. They seemingly can't decide whether to attack her as a book-banning Bush-of-the-North extremist who brought partisanship and cronyism to small-town government, dismiss her as a provincial novice in over her head, brand her as a double-talker who opposes pork only when it isn't hers, or simply ignore her. According to a TIME poll, McCain has almost erased Obama's pre-convention lead among women voters (see following story), and Beltway chatterers are rehashing their questions from the primary about Obama's ability to connect with working-class voters. Palin is now getting some bad press--for trying to quash an investigation in Alaska, for incorrectly claiming she had visited Iraq and opposed the "bridge to nowhere," for appearing hazy about the Bush Doctrine--but Obama is no longer talking about her.
The deeper concern among the handwringers is that Obama isn't really tough enough for the job, even if he did emerge from the rough-and-tumble of Chicago politics, even if he did outfox the Clinton machine, even if he is the first black man to win a party nomination. They worry that he's trying to run out the clock, as if the disasters caused by eight years of supply-side economics and neoconservative geopolitics were so obvious that he could simply coast to victory on a massive get-out-the-vote operation and the collective wisdom of the American people. But many Americans don't know much about John McCain beyond his heroism in Vietnam, so Democrats want Obama to cast him as a shill for Big Oil, a lobbyist's dream, a dangerous warmonger, a liar without honor. They want to see the word Republican in Obama's ads. They want to see fire in his belly.
But Obama doesn't do spontaneous combustion. And he's keenly aware of the deeper danger of fire for America's first black presidential nominee. Over the past 19 months, he's been attacked as a naive novice, an empty suit, a tax-and-spend liberal, an arugula-grazing élitist and a corrupt ward heeler, but the attacks that nearly derailed him involved the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, attacks designed to portray Obama as an angry black man. White America has embraced unthreatening African Americans like Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and Colin Powell, but this is still a majority-white country, and Obama does not want to be stereotyped as a race man like Malcolm X. In a media climate in which "working class" and "small town" and "ordinary" voters still mean white voters, angry white candidates can be "populists," but angry black candidates get tagged as "militants." Obama has no interest in trying to find out whether America is ready for an angry black man. He's more likely to try to send negative messages with humor, as he does in a new ad that mocks McCain's unfamiliarity with e-mail while featuring a Rubik's Cube, a prehistoric cell phone and other relics of 1982, the year of McCain's arrival in Congress. Campaign treasurer Martin Nesbitt says Obama is keenly aware of the pressure to "strike back and be meaner; fight fire with fire," but the candidate is not swayed by it. "He lets all the noise go on," Nesbitt says.
Obama's aides are sensitive about his brand; they don't want to undercut his claim to represent a new kind of politics. That's why they don't use the word Republican in ads; they think voters are tired of partisan attacks. And that's why they initially asked Democratic groups not to air any independent ads on Obama's behalf; they wanted to control the brand themselves. But the Service Employees International Union recently aired an anti-McCain ad, and other groups are poised to follow suit. Earlier polls had produced "reckless overconfidence on the part of our donors," one Democratic operative said, but that overconfidence is gone.
As the candidates prepare for their first debate Sept. 26, the Obama camp remains confident it can win an argument about who can deliver change. As Plouffe puts it: "No matter how many times McCain and Palin use the word change or try to reinvent their own records, one thing stays the same: when it comes to the economy, education, Iraq or the special-interest stranglehold on Washington, they are both stubborn defenders of the past eight years, and they both promise more of the same."
It's a powerful argument in a Democratic year. It's the argument Obama has been making for months. But it's not yet a winning argument.
7 months ago