“If the Democrats remain divided they will lose the presidency. Were that to happen, after Iraq, Katrina and an economic crisis, they might well want to consider an alternative line of work.” – The Economist
Barack Obama still has a lot to do
ON AUGUST 28th, barring some dark maneuver by seething Clintonistas, Barack Obama will accept the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Forty-five years to the day after Martin Luther King spoke of his dream, America will take a giant leap towards the realization of that great call for justice. Hundreds of millions will watch, and be moved; Mr. Obama seems too many, by reason of his race, his calm intelligence, his youthful good looks and his powerful oratorical skills, to be well suited to draw a line beneath the bitter Bush years and to repair America’s torn relationship with the outside world. One prominent pundit was much derided earlier this year for describing the tingle he got from listening to the candidate-but everyone knew exactly what he meant.
This moment comes as much through perspiration as through inspiration. Mr. Obama’s achievement in defeating the Clinton machine was monumental. Hillary Clinton started out as the overwhelming favorite, with the Democratic Party establishment, not to mention its big-ticket donors, squarely behind her and poll leads that sometimes topped 20 percentage points. But Mr. Obama ran a brilliant campaign, using the internet to harness the energy and the donations of an army of volunteers, and deploying them with tactical skill in almost every state. He managed the firestorm touched off by his intemperate pastor, Jeremiah Wright, with dignity and, eventually, ruthlessness.
When it comes to the issues, it is hardly surprising that The Economist is less impressed. Mr. Obama’s tilt towards protectionism during the primary campaign was both wrong and dangerous. So was his insistence on denying funds to the “surge” that has worked so well (if belatedly) in Iraq, and his determination to withdraw troops from the conflict according to a rigid timetable. We are nervous about his incentive-destroying willingness to raise taxes sharply on the well-off, and of the cost implications of many of his policies. But we recognize that his positions have evolved as the campaign has moved from the primary stage, where politicians have to outdo each other in their appeal to their party faithful, to the general election. Were he to become president, they would move further to the centre again. And policies are by no means the whole story of an American election: character and leadership matter greatly, too. Mr Obama is an impressive nominee with the potential to be a fine president.
But the road to the White House is still a hard one. Even though the Republican brand is as contaminated as a Soviet-era reactor, and 80% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, Mr. Obama is barely ahead of his septuagenarian Republican rival. He is less popular than his party as a whole: in “generic” polling, people prefer Democrats to Republicans by around 12 points, but Mr. Obama is ahead of John McCain by an average of only around 45% to 43%. One poll this week had Mr. McCain five points ahead. The presidential debates, which will start next month, usually sway a lot of voters. Mr. Obama is generally held to have lost his only encounter so far with Mr. McCain, in back-to-back interviews with Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor, on August 16th. In the battleground states which will determine the result, Mr McCain has steadily been gaining ground; if the polls are borne out, the result, as in 2000 and 2004, will be nerve-janglingly close.
Many Americans, including a dangerously large number of Democrats, still have their doubts about Mr. Obama. Some see him as too young and inexperienced for a dangerous world; others find him unattractively self-regarding and aloof; still others question his patriotism. Many resent his apparent flip-flopping on important issues, like gun-control and whether or not to talk to Iran and Syria, as well as less important ones, like whether to wear a flag pin. His cynical breaking of a promise to be bound by federal campaign-finance limits was shabby by any standards. Perhaps the most damning criticism of him is that he has never exhibited political courage by daring to take on any of his party’s powerful interests, as his rival, John McCain, has done over many issues, including global warming, campaign-finance reform, immigration and torture.
Yes, he still can
From the moment of his coronation in Denver, Mr. Obama will have 68 days to allay these doubts. There is not much he can do about his thin résumé or his lack of foreign-policy and security expertise, though he can mitigate the latter somewhat with an astute choice of running mate. And it is a bit late now for principled stands in the Senate. Mr. Obama could certainly tone down the triumphalism: opting to make his acceptance speech not in the convention hall but in a 75,000-seater sports stadium seems like another mistake, akin to his hubristic rock-star’s tour of Europe. He needs to be a lot clearer and firmer about how he will deal with America’s foes and rivals: his first instinct when Russia invaded Georgia was to waffle. Acknowledging that the Iraq surge, which he tried to block, has worked would also be a sign of tough-mindedness.
Most of all, he needs to spend those 68 days showing that he understands, and can connect with, ordinary Americans. The economy ought to be the Democrats’ trump card, just as security tends to be the Republicans’. But some of the most surprising recent polls show that Mr. Obama is rated lower by voters on how he would handle the economy than is Mr. McCain, who has admitted that he doesn’t know much about the subject. That may be because Mr. Obama often sounds curiously disconnected from the troubles of anyone except America’s very poorest. Mrs. Clinton was much better at empathizing with Middle America, and Mr. Obama needs to show he has learnt from her.
That could also help heal the wounds of the Democratic Party, which, after the bitter contest and Mr. Obama’s narrow victory, are still raw. If the Democrats remain divided they will lose the presidency. Were that to happen, after Iraq, Katrina and an economic crisis, they might well want to consider an alternative line of work.