June 09, 2008
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. … I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Thus did Joe Biden famously describe his rival for the nomination, Barack Obama, to the The New York Observer, a year ago.
Biden, however, thought Obama might not be able to win the fall election, as he is “a one-term, a guy who has served for four years in the Senate. … I don’t recall hearing a word from Barack about a plan or a tactic.” Biden was forced to apologize, but was dead on in discerning Barack’s strengths as a candidate in the primaries, which might prove weaknesses in the fall.
A new face in the game, Barack opened with three aces. He opposed the Iraq war, the defining issue in a party that had come to detest the war. He was an African-American. Thus, as the hopes of millions rose that he could be the first black president, there were surges of black voters whom he begin to sweep 90-10.
Lastly, Barack is a natural, a Mickey Mantle, a superb political athlete like JFK, who has looks, charm, youth and a speaking style that can move crowds to cheers or laughter.
Barack was thus able to unite the McGovern wing—young, idealistic, liberal, antiwar—with the Jesse Jackson quadrant of the party, black folks, and defeat Hillary’s coalition of working-class Catholics, women, seniors, and Hispanics.
As of today, by the traditional metrics of national politics, Democrats should roll up a victory this fall like FDR’s first in 1932.
Bush’s disapproval is near 70 percent, and 80 percent of the country believes the nation is on the wrong course. Unemployment is rising. Surging gas and food prices compete for the top story not only on business pages but front pages, with home foreclosures and the housing slump. Family incomes of Middle Americans have ceased to rise, as millions of their best jobs have been outsourced overseas.
Yet, national polls show McCain-Obama a close race, and the electoral map points to critical problems for Barack.
He seeks, for example, to target Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. But in all three the Hispanic vote may be decisive. And Barack was beaten by Hillary two to one among Hispanics, and between these two largest of America’s minorities, rivalry and tension are real and rising.
Barack must hold Michigan and Pennsylvania and pick up Ohio or Virginia. Yet, his weakness among Southern and working-class whites and women is remarkable. By two to one they rejected him.
After his string of primary and caucus victories in February, Barack proceeded to lose Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, then West Virginia by 41, Kentucky by 35, Puerto Rico two to one and South Dakota by 10. That last one Barack was supposed to win.
The longer the campaign went on, the more reluctant Democrats seemed to be to embrace his nomination.
What is Barack’s problem?
Middle America knows little about him, and much of what they know they do not like. When West Virginians were asked what they knew about Barack, a plurality said the Rev. Wright was his pastor. In Pennsylvania, a goodly slice of Democrats knew Barack had said they were “bitter” about being left behind and were clinging to their bigotries, Bibles and guns.
By June, resistance to Barack’s nomination in the party that he now leads was extraordinary, stemming from a belief that he is too naive to be commander in chief in wartime and too far left, and does not like or understand Middle America or its values.
“He is not one of us.”
And if Barack cannot erase this hardening perception in the American mind, he will not be president.
Democrats may talk of making the economy the issue this fall, but Republicans are going to make Barack the issue. Story line: We cannot entrust our beloved America, in a time of war, to this radical and exotic figure who has so many crazy and extremist associates.
Barack’s problem is thus Reagan’s problem.
As the country wished to be rid of Jimmy Carter in 1980, so the nation today wishes to be rid of Bush and his Republicans. But America is apprehensive over a roll of the dice, in Bill Clinton’s metaphor.
How did Reagan ease the anxiety? In the debate with Carter, he came off as conservative, yes, but also traditional, mainstream, witty and the more likable man. The real Reagan came through.
With his persona, Barack may be able to do the same—in the debates. The problem is that he had two dozen debates with Hillary and, by the end of the primary season, five months after it began, he was still losing ground.