The Barack Obama campaign has been floundering. If he had a lead in the polls in late June--and the summer polls are notoriously fickly--he clearly lost it by the convention’s beginning. And so far, the convention--dominated, ironically, by the Clintons--has not particularly helped. Bill Clinton and Joe Biden performed quite well last night, but if Obama fails to deliver a spellbinding oration tonight, the Democrats could be in for a long and disappointing fall.
Why is Obama in trouble? Many of his problems are not of his own doing; they stem from his being the first African American to have a shot at the presidency. The New York Times’ Matt Bai insists that “the race isn’t about race” and that what matters more is Obama’s “remarkably little governing experience.” Obama’s inexperience is undoubtedly a handicap against John McCain, but what Bai misses is the connection: Obama’s race reinforces whatever doubts voters might have about his ability to govern. As several psychological experiments have shown, white voters asked to compare white and black candidates of equal accomplishment will tend to view the black candidate as being less competent.
Stanley Greenberg and Democracy Corps make a similar mistake in what is otherwise a brilliant study of how voters in Macomb County, a white working class area north of Detroit, plan to vote this fall. Greenberg found Obama trailing McCain by 46 to 39 percent in this bellwether county, which Bill Clinton won in 1996 and John Kerry lost in 2004. Greenberg found that a third of Macomb voters were worried that Obama “will put the interests of black Americans ahead of other Americans,” but concluded that Macomb’s voters “do not seem to be voting predominately on race.” Instead, he contended that Macomb voters are more worried about Obama raising taxes.
Concerns about Obama’s race and his being a tax-and-spend liberal, however, are intricately related. Psychological studies showing that white voters will judge a black candidate to be less competent also show that they will judge a black candidate with the same views as a white one to be less moderate and more leftwing. Worries about race reinforce worries about taxing and spending.
So Obama starts the general election with a large handicap that he has to overcome. And as voters have begun to focus on the choice between him and McCain, and as the McCain campaign has gone on the attack against Obama’s experience and ideology, these handicaps have become much more serious.
Obama still has advantages that he can fall back on. Voters prefer Democrats to Republicans by a wide margin. And Obama has attracted intense support from African Americans; upscale, professional Democrats; and Democratic-leaning independents. According to Greenberg’s polling, Obama is running nine points ahead of McCain in neighboring Oakland County, the home of well-to-do professionals and managers. All in all, Obama has a good chance to win in November--but this summer the Obama campaign has made the crucial error of conducting itself as it were on the verge of a landslide victory, comparable to Lyndon Johnson’s win over Barry Goldwater in 1964. And it is still displaying the same overconfidence.
After securing the nomination in June, Obama’s first priority had to be healing the rift between himself and Hillary Clinton. Candidates who can’t put nomination battles behind them well before the convention usually lose. Think of Goldwater in 1964, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Walter Mondale in 1984. There are only two candidates I can remember who succeeded in overcoming intraparty rifts during the convention--John Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980--and they did it by nominating their primary opponents to be vice president.
Obama, who evidently did not see a nail-biting election looming, chose not to do that, and is reaping the consequences. I didn’t think so last spring, but I realize now that Obama would have been better off had he chosen Hillary Clinton. Of course, he might have faced a nightmare in January 2009 with Bill and Hillary in the White House, but at least he would have been more assured of making it there. As it is, he may not be able to count on Clinton’s fundraisers in the fall, he may not be able to count on all of her voters, and states that might have been in play with the two Clintons in tow--Florida, Arkansas, and Missouri--probably won’t be.
Obama’s pursuit of a 50-state strategy (now mercifully reduced to eighteen) is another sign of overconfidence. This summer, for instance, he spent money advertising and opening up field offices in Georgia. He has even appointed a coordinator for gay Georgians. That’s fine, but Obama doesn’t have a prayer of carrying Georgia in the presidential election. That’s the kind of calculation you make if you think you’re Johnson in 1964 and not Kennedy in 1960. Or if you think that field operations have the same effect in a general election that they do in a party caucus. From my experience, Obama’s field operations were actually superior to those of Hillary Clinton in West Virginia, a state where he won 26 percent of the vote. They were superior in California, too, which Obama also lost. Field operations can be important, but as Karl Rove showed in 2004, they have to be carefully targeted.
Finally, Obama’s rejection of McCain’s proposal to hold weekly town meeting debates probably stemmed from overconfidence. The leading candidate always wants to avoid debates. But I agree with my colleague Michael Crowley, who thinks these town hall meetings could have helped Obama’s campaign. As detailed polling and focus groups have shown, Obama still remains a mystery to most voters; and as an African American, the mystery risks being solved with the usual stereotypes. Obama could have used these weekly meetings to introduce himself to white voters and to reassure them that he wouldn’t put black interests above theirs. And as an extra bonus, McCain may not have been able to maintain his cool during ten or twelve weekly debates.
Add these results of overconfidence to Obama’s Berlin speech (which made an otherwise serious foreign trip look like a political stunt to impress the rubes back home) and his flip-flop response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia (he went from apportioning blame equally to calling for NATO to admit Georgia, which would likely commit the U.S. to military intervention on its behalf), and you have some of the reasons why Obama has faltered this summer. But there is a larger issue--and one that Obama has the opportunity to address in his convention speech tonight.
Some of what Obama has to do in his convention speech--and in the weeks to follow--is simply redress the errors of the summer. In his speech, he has to bestow praise on the Clinton years. That’s a way of continuing the process of reconciliation, as former Clinton aide Howard Wolfson has suggested he do, and it’s good politics to contrast Clinton prosperity with Bush recession. Obama could also use Hillary and Bill Clinton on the campaign trail--particularly in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and (if he stands any chance there) Missouri, where Bill was very popular. Obama himself and Joe Biden need to risk wearing out their welcome in the battleground states. Not a single voter in Ohio should think that Obama is a Muslim or that he agrees with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And he should avoid spending time and money in states like Georgia. Even North Carolina may appear futile by October 1. It’s 1960, remember, not 1964.
But what Obama has to do above all is find a way to focus on the economy--which is voters’ main concern--and to do so in a way that reflects his best abilities and deepest beliefs, and that is cognizant of the obstacles he faces as an African American candidate. To begin with, that means Obama cannot run as a Huey Long-style red meat populist. That’s not who he is, anyway. And in making promises, he has to be careful to avoid endorsing programs that could be interpreted as irresponsible acts of tax-and-spend liberalism. He can propose a detailed plan for national health insurance once he is elected. For the moment, he should avoid anything that appears to require new taxes, or that appears to send a lot of money to inner-cities.
Of course, Obama has to propose programs and attack McCain’s outrageous tax-or-spending proposals, but he needs to do it using a simple economic theme that highlights what he wants to do and draws a contrast with McCain. If you look back at Bill Clinton’s campaigns in 1992 and 1996, they were based on very simple themes. In 1992, “putting people first” highlighted Clinton’s middle class tax cut and drew a contrast with the “patrician” Bush. In 1996, “building a bridge to the 21st century” highlighted Clinton’s economic successes and drew a contrast between the youthful Clinton and the aging Bob Dole.
Obama ran his primary campaign around the slogan “change we can believe in.” That helped burnish his outsider image against Clinton, but it doesn’t work as well against McCain (who, fairly or not, is still identified with outsiderdom and change), and it doesn’t provide the context for any economic program. This has been clear for months, but the Obama campaign has yet to provide an alternative.
I am not clever enough to come up with such a theme, but I can say that it should be an extension of Obama’s underlying appeal to the unity of American races, religions, states, regions, and even parties. That’s what brought him to Americans’ attention in 2004 when he declared at the Democratic convention that “there's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.” What he has to say from now on should be framed as an attempt to prevent the wide disparities in wealth, income, and power that are undermining the promise of American democracy. By articulating a positive picture of a unified America, this theme also has the virtue of directly addressing voters’ fears about his favoring African Americans over whites.
Obama will also have to address foreign policy, but he needs to find a way to contrast his own concern about creating a new America with John McCain’s relative indifference to what goes on in Sheboygan or Akron. Bill Clinton did that brilliantly against George H.W. Bush in 1992; and in his speech last night, he may have showed Obama how to do it against McCain. “Most important, Barack Obama knows that America cannot be strong abroad unless we are strong at home,” Clinton said. “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
I want to say one final thing; it’s about Obama’s oratorical style. In response to the criticisms of his Berlin speech, some Democrats suggested that Obama should tone down his high style and seek a more direct conversational approach, even at the risk of being dull. That would be a tragic error. Obama’s mistake was giving an uplifting speech to a huge crowd in Berlin; not giving an uplifting speech. High-flown oratory has always played a very large role in American politics--going back to Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson--and Obama’s ability to perform in that manner is one of his greatest strengths. Obama’s presentation isn’t the problem; it is his message. And his first and best opportunity to fix it will come tonight.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.