Obama Better Known Than McCain?

Obama Beach Photo An Andrew Sullivan reader takes issue with my contention that Barack Obama is “less of a known commodity” than John McCain.

Barack Obama has become an absolute pop culture and media sensation. America is literally obsessed with him. He’s a celebrity candidate who became a celebrity by running for president; he’s been discussed, debated, and argued over on television, in newspapers, in political magazines, in gossip magazines, on the internet, among every age group, every demographic, every race, and in every subset of American life.

No doubt. But there’s a decided difference in being vetted as a pop culture icon and as a potential president of the United States. We “know” more about Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan than we do about most of our politicians but we’re rather in the dark about their positions on nuclear proliferation and tax policy.

McCain has been on the national radar much longer and is making his second run at the presidency. Obama, despite the hoopla surrounding him since his speech at the 2004 convention, is still a fuzzy figure for most Americans. They know he’s all the things Joe Biden said about him and that he’s got a lot of hope and promises change. Beyond that, though, I’m not sure that the average American knows much about the direction in which he’d lead the country.

Despite having gone through a bruising and extended primary fight — which I believe ultimately helped more than hurt — he’s still hardly been introduced to the country. Given how long he’s been in national politics, it’s almost unfathomable that there’s anything like a Jeremiah Wright controversy waiting to be unleashed; someone would have found it by now. While I was instantly dismissive of the “Whiteygate” rumors, the fact remains that we’re likely to see more of that sort of thing, some of which will have legs.

Nor do I disagree with Andrew’s correspondent here:

On top of all this, Obama has the lopsided money advantage, the lopsided enthusiasm advantage, the lopsided technology advantage, the lopsided earned media advantage, the lopsided paid media advantage, the lopsided volunteer and voter registration advantage, the lopsided issue advantage, the lopsided party advantage, and the lopsided ground army advantage.

Obama’s the heavy favorite right now. Both parties picked, I believe, the best general election candidate available to them and this looks to be a Democratic year. Further, Obama is a special candidate, whose charisma (like that of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton) seems to be powerful enough to overshadow his deficiencies as a candidate. It’s his race to lose, no doubt. But he just might do it.

McCain’s chief asset is his experience and the fact that most people simply take it as a given that he’s got what it takes to serve as commander-in-chief. To be sure, Hillary Clinton tried to beat Obama on that count and (narrowly) lost. But McCain’s advantage on military affairs trumps Clinton’s far more than Clinton’s outpaced Obama’s. And the general election swing voter and the Democratic primary voter are different animals.

If November comes down to who can make the gals on “The View” squeal and get teenage girls to throw their panties, it’s not going to be much of a contest. If it’s about being the leader of a country at war, though, McCain’s got a puncher’s chance.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Science & Technology, The Presidency, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    How can you say that McCain’s positions are well-known when they change hourly? He voted against Bush’s tax cuts, but now he wants to make them permanent. He danced and sang “Bomb Bomb Iran” but now only a fool thinks war is a romantic adventure.

    Furthermore, we don’t elect a “commander-in-chief” we elect a president, who happens to command the military. Traditionally we elect strong domestic leaders with enough sense to delegate military matters to military men. Even if you were to accept the idea that commander-in-chief is the principle role of the presidency, for the sake of joining the argument, would you really then choose mr. last-in-his-class for the job? Obama may not have tried his hand at a military career, but at least he did not try and fail.

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Here is what I know about Barrack. He was born to a Muslim father. Under Muslim law that makes him a muslim. By his own words he as stated the Muslim call to prayer is the most beautiful sound in the world. He attended Muslin schools as a child. He claims Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright brought him to Jesus. I have observed the DVD’s of Wrights preaching. He is not capable of bringing anyone to Christ. Muslim law states once a Muslim always a Muslim. Muslim law allows lying to those other than Muslim to further Muslim causes. Besides all and I mean all of his close associates are enemies of the United States of America. Starting the the criminal Bill Ayers.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Under Muslim law that makes him a muslim.

    Not precisely. If he had been born in a Muslim country, you’d be right but he wasn’t and, according to the beliefs of most Muslims there’s no assumption that he’s a Muslim regardless of who his father was if he’s born in a non-Muslim country.

    You might want to check out Ali Eteraz’s post on this subject. He’s pretty well-informed.

  4. Senator Obama certainly has better PR, which is kind of the same as being better known, at least in the famous rather than infamous meaning of the phrase.

    The triumph of style over substance is almost complete.

  5. Mike P says:

    I beg to differ with your remarks. Clark Hoytt, the Public Editor of the New York Times, recently addressed this in response to Edward Luttwak’s piece on Obama.

    From Hoyt’s piece:

    Luttwak made several sweeping statements that the scholars I interviewed said were incorrect or highly debatable, including assertions that in Islam a father’s religion always determines a child’s, regardless of the facts of his upbringing; that Obama’s “conversion” to Christianity was apostasy; that apostasy is, with few exceptions, a capital crime; and that a Muslim could not be punished for killing an apostate.

    Obama was born in Hawaii to a mother from Kansas with Christian roots and a Kenyan father whose own father had converted to Islam. When Obama was a toddler, his father left the family. His mother later married an Indonesian Muslim, and Obama spent five years in Jakarta, where he attended Catholic and Muslim schools and, according to The Los Angeles Times, was enrolled in the third and fourth grades as a Muslim.

    Luttwak wrote that given those facts, Obama was a Muslim and his mother’s Christian background was irrelevant. But Sherman A. Jackson, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, cited an ancient Islamic jurist, Ibn al-Qasim, who said, “If you divorce a Christian woman and ignore your child from her to the point that the child grows up to be a Christian, the child is to be left,” meaning left to make his own choice. Jackson said that there was not total agreement among Islamic jurists on the point, but Luttwak’s assertion to the contrary was wrong.

    Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law, said the majority opinion among Islamic jurists is that the law of apostasy can apply only to individuals who knowingly decide to be Muslims and later renege. One school of thought, he said, is that an individual must be at least a teenager to make the choice. Obama’s campaign told The Los Angeles Times last year that he “has never been a practicing Muslim.” As a young adult, he chose to be baptized as a Christian.

    Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a professor of law at Emory University, said that Sharia, or Islamic law, including the law of apostasy, does not apply to an American or anyone outside the Muslim world. Of the more than 40 countries where Muslims are the majority, he said, Sharia is the official legal system only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and even there apostasy is unevenly prosecuted, and apostates often wind up in prison, not executed.

    And James…nice close up there about Obama. I was unaware that serious people could evaluate and decide to back Obama and that it should be left to pre-pubescent girls who have a crush. I guess the rest of us are just silly and should obviously support McCain (even when he is talking nonsense on the economy, contradicting himself on Iraq, etc). But remember…he’s experienced!

  6. James Joyner says:

    I was unaware that serious people could evaluate and decide to back Obama and that it should be left to pre-pubescent girls who have a crush. I guess the rest of us are just silly and should obviously support McCain

    No, not at all. I’m just arguing that Obama’s status as a pop culture sensation doesn’t mean that the public has decided that he’d make a good president.

    Even if the election is decidedly mostly on McCain’s terms, I think he’s the underdog (thus “a puncher’s chance”). But he’s dead meat if it’s simply decided on buzz.