What Obama Needs to Do

Democratic pundits are understandably nervous about the fact that Barack Obama’s once impressive lead in the polls has all but vanished.  That’s led to a lot of second guessing about the early convention speeches, the 50-state (or is that 57?) strategy, and so forth.

TNR senior editor John Judis thinks Obama needs to make radical changes towards “Avoiding a Long, Disappointing Fall.”  He thinks that most of the concerns about Obama’s policies and experience are really just backhanded racism (a rather dubious analysis) but realizes there’s not much that can be done on that front.  Thankfully,

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 [Stan] 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.

This resulted in snubbing McCain’s suggestion for multiple town hall debates, staging a massive pep rally in a foreign land, and other errors of hubris.  To correct course, Judis argues, Obama must use tonight’s acceptance speech to change forcus away from “change.”

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.

NPR’s Juan Williams thinks “Obama Needs to Take a Stand on Race and Other Issues.”

[O]n any issue of racial consequence Mr. Obama has become a stealth candidate. It is arguably smart politics not to focus on potentially controversial racial issues when you are a black man running in an election with an electorate that is more than 75% white. But how is it possible that Mr. Obama, as he rises to claim the mantle of Dr. King before 75,000 people and a national TV audience of millions here tonight, remains a mystery on the most important civil rights issues of our day?

Mr. Obama is nowhere man when it comes time to speak out on reforming big city public schools, with their criminally high dropout rates for minority children. He apparently refuses to do it for fear that supporting vouchers or doing anything to strengthen charter schools will alienate vote-rich unions. His rare references to the critical argument over affirmative action — an issue that is on several state ballots this fall — give both opponents and supporters reason to think he might be on their side. He has had little if anything to say about the persistent 25% poverty rate in black America.


The uneasy truth may be that Mr. Obama is not worried about alienating white voters with his stands on race. It is more likely that he fears having to speak the truth about the poor — who are disproportionately black and Latino — needing to take more responsibility for family breakdown, bad schools, thug-life culture and high poverty rates.

Democratic strategist Dan Gernstein, though, argues that “Obama Should Just Be Himself.”

[T]he Democrats who are telling Mr. Obama “I love you, you’re perfect, now change” are underestimating the position of fundamental strength he is starting with, and the tremendous advantages his campaign will bring to bear this fall.

This is not just a matter of cyclical political dynamics that strongly favor Democrats (record-setting wrong track numbers, the damage George W. Bush has done to the Republican brand, a major intensity gap among the bases, etc.). Mr. Obama’s campaign itself has a substantial structural lead — the ruthlessly efficient money-raising and field-organizing machine that swamped the Clinton juggernaut is ready to do the same to Mr. McCain — that current polls just don’t account for and won’t for some time.

More importantly, the doubting Democrats are misunderstanding the challenge Mr. Obama faces in closing the deal with those crucial voters who want a leader who can move the country in a new direction but are not yet sold on Mr. Obama as the man for that job.


He mostly just needs to be himself — or to be more precise, to be more of himself. No reinvention, no repositioning — just recount the tough stands and political risks he has already taken, relentlessly reinforce those points for the next three months, and ideally look for a few opportunities to walk the change-making walk as we near November.

I agree with Gernstein that the fundamentals strongly favor Obama.  Narrow polls (he’s only up 1.8 points in today’s RealClearPolitics average) notwithstanding, the race remains his to lose.  The country is overwhelmingly in a mood to go in a different direction and they seem to like him.  (Indeed, as Matt Yglesias notes, they seem to like both candidates.)  Obama has to persuade people — who are just now starting to pay attention — that he’s got what it takes to lead. If he does that, he wins.  If not, John McCain is what he was throughout the Republican primary process:  The old reliable fallback position.

Gernstein’s suggestion that Obama achieve that by pointing out the tough stances he’s already taken, though, strikes me as unlikely to work.  He’s a junior Senator who has spent most of his four years in an office that people count towards presidential preparation running for president.   I’m not sure getting “booed by the nation’s biggest teachers union for openly advocating” a policy wildly popular everywhere outside that room is goting to cut it. He’s going to have to do it by inspiring confidence with his speeches and debate performances.

Like most of his recent predecessors as Democratic presidential nominee, he’s also going to have to assuage fears that he’s weak on national security and that looks down on regular people and their values.  Telling people that they’re racist for even harboring such doubts is not the winning strategy.

Image:  Zina Saunders for WSJ

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Democracy, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. sam says:

    Like most of his recent predecessors as Democratic presidential nominee, he’s also going to have to assuage fears that he’s weak on national security and that looks down on regular people and their values. Telling people that they’re racist for even harboring such doubts is not the winning strategy.

    He’s taken a strong stand on Afghanistan, and I don’t see him as per se coming across as weak on national security. (“I don’t oppose all wars…“) Of course, to some, comparing him to John “bomb, bomb, Iran” McCain, he’ll always look weak. As for connecting with regular folks, time will tell, I guess, but, as Matt says, people do seem to like him. Re the last, that’s just not his style, and if any of his team even think of going that forlorn road, he should let them know that the second step after the first step on that road is out the door.

  2. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Obama just doesn’t have the experience to sell himself as ready to be president. The best suggestion I have heard is that he should get specific on what he would do. If you don’t have experience you can point to, then spell out in detail what you will do. Of course the danger here is that Obama’s far left political viewpoint will shine through his detailed description of his plans.

  3. Rick Almeida says:

    There is no real reason to consider head-to-head polls, especially from July & August, as having much predictive value. Gaming out electoral college outcomes seems to be a lot more relevant to the election, and also happens to favor Obama much more strongly.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    The fundamentals of the candidate are far from favorable. Inexperienced and very liberal I expect Obama to fall further behind as America gets to know him.

    The lack of those ever expected bounces in polls for Obama make it look like his peak of popularity has passed.

  5. angellight says:

    The Clintons have indeed Redeemed themselves and have united the Democratic party. However, Media wants you to think that Dems Convention was a bust (no red meat – vegatables are so much more healthier to the system, however) But, what the Dems did accomplish and which is stronger than all the red meat/anger in the world is UNITY/Love, because a house divided cannot stand! Watch out and be on Guard for those who want to Divide because make no mistake about it a united group is Powerful, Strong, Unstoppable. Now they want to belittle and divide us by unmeaningful and trivial talks of pillars and temple, some seem even Obsessed by it. They are like rude and jealous children who make fun of a beautiful or gifted person — making fun of their clothes because they are not satisfied within themselves, all the while secretly wishing they looked like that or had that gift. People of Change, People of the future, be on guard!

    For those who want accurate news analysis, do yourself a favor and “watch C-SPAN for convention coverage and get yourself psychically cleared. Stop watching cable news channels. The MSM is desperately working to program us morning noon and night. And creating despair amongst those who are openly hopeful about 2008 politics is very easy. Just bust the bubble that gives you room to believe that change can happen and the rest falls away. Including your own sense of self-empowerment. Believe it.”

  6. floyd says:

    Sometimes it’s not how smart the salesman, but how gullible the buyer![lol]

  7. And we should believe Senator Obama is strong on defense, able to connect with people who can’t spell argula or pick it out of a vegetable lineup, and that every sin of the evil Bush can be rectified in the first one-hundred days because …, um …, because he says so in a scripted, well-rehearsed speech.