The Rise and Fall of Barack Obama (repost)

(NOTE: This post was originally published in The 7-10 on August 1, 2007, long before the Iowa caucuses. While Obama did since win the Democratic nomination, it appears that his momentum is stalled for some of the same reasons I listed in this year-old post. Of course, things can always change again after the debates, but right now, the Obama campaign should be worried. The post that follows has not been edited to reflect the change in the political landscape since the summer of 2007 when it was originally written.)


In a sea of about 20 candidates running for president, some of them have been more dominant than others. However, perhaps no candidate has generated as much buzz, garnered more media coverage, or has been hyped up as much as Barack Obama.

It is easy to understand why he has become the subject of such intrigue. His biography is unlike that of any other candidate who is running or has ever run for president. The fact that he is biracial and has an international upbringing symbolizes how people from completely divergent circumstances can overcome their differences and unite to create wonderful and beautiful things. And even though he is biracial, he is generally considered Black, which opens up all sorts of other avenuesfor exploration. As a Black, he single-handedly shatters so many stereotypes people have about Black politicians and Blacks in general. In short, he is well-traveled, a gifted speaker, and connects well with people at a level that most other politicians can't.

Part of Obama's appeal is how he inspires and motivates people, particularly people who are only casual observers of politics or people who don't follow politics at all. It's not because he doesn't "look" like a politician because he's Black. If that were the case, then Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley-Braun would have fared far better in their presidential runs. It's because he simply connects with nonpolitical people by speaking nonpolitical language. When he made mistakes in the past, he didn't issue carefully parsed statements or nondenial denials or accuse people of "playing politics" or "media bias." Instead, he'd own up to it and call it a "boneheaded" action or remark. It seems like this kind of plainspokenness should be common sense, but it's really not when it comes to politicians, who by nature are always calculating, leveraging, and positioning themselves. This is why so many regular people rate his debate performances more highly than the pundits do. Obama's candor is refreshing.

This candor disarms and captivates audiences. On the campaign trail he appeals to their idealistic side by talking about "a different type of politics" and "an end to the cynicism in Washington." Politicians have certainly run as outsiders before, but Obama is seen as a more credible messenger. And he has backed up this rhetoric by not stuffing earmarks into appropriation bills and not accepting money from political action committees (PACs). So he has practiced what he preached.

The media have also been having a field day covering Obama, almost hanging on every word he says as if it were Shakespearian. The media's gift to the ongoing political dialogue is the term "rock star," which they use to describe Obama. In other words, Obama is a rock star because he has good looks, an interesting personal story, and adoring crowds that are more than eager to support him.

The problem with this is that Obama is not a rock star. He is a candidate for President of the United States. And as the president, issues of character, experience, and policy positions become important. During Obama's ascent to media and political stardom, not much attention has been paid to his policy positions and his experience because his freshness trumped any other nagging doubts people had about him. However, these doubts are becoming more difficult to ignore now.

At what point does experience really matter? George Bush beat the more experienced Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004. But the challenges the world faces in 2007 suggest that a competent, experienced person is what this nation needs in the White House in 2009. America pinned its hopes on the optimist in 2000 and 2004 and is undoubtedly experiencing buyer's remorse. But is Obama '08 the same as Bush '00? If experience really is that important, then Democrats would be wise to nominate a different candidate.

Another problem confronting Obama is the dizzying expectations that have been set for him. Pundits and talking heads have gone so far as to compare him with JFK, which is unfair. When such comparisons are thrown around so casually, it can only serve to the detriment of the candidate. People who are not familiar with "The Obama" may be curious about him because of the media's gushing and praise. So they attend an Obama event and expect a near religious experience. However, this moment never comes and many of these people are left wondering what all the hype is about after shaking his hand and going home.

Could it be that Obama has set his own trap by being too good for his own good? One point he kept stressing was how he was the candidate to bring about "change" and a "positive" dialogue. He eschewed attack ads and hitting below the belt. But while that rhetoric may be noble, it has also put Obama in a political straitjacket.

As a general rule in politics, if you get kicked in the butt, that means you're the one who's ahead. Everybody's gunning for you. Why do you need to go on offense if you're winning the race? The only people who have to attack are the people who are running in second. Think about why Hillary Clinton has stayed at the top of the polls even though she's generally been in cruise control (at least until last week's spat between her and Obama). None of the other candidates will catch her unless they lob a few grenades at her. You can't overtake someone if you don't mount an offense.

But the problem for Obama regarding running in second is the fact that attacking Clinton contradicts his own message about the "politics of hope" and "changing the tone in Washington." But he can't win the nomination without shooting a few holes in Hillary's political balloon first. So he has been neutralized by his own message! It is possible to identify and express your differences with a political opponent in a civil way, but that is not nearly as forceful as flat out saying someone is wrong. And unfortunately for Obama, strong and wrong beats light and right in the political world almost every time. Think about the 2004 election, for example.

Obama was able to energize his supporters last week with his tit-for-tat with Hillary Clinton. However, he is now undermining his authenticity (one of his strengths) by awkwardly trying to compensate for his biggest weaknesses--that he is soft. For example, he recently said "he may send US troops into Pakistan if there was actionable intelligence." But why? Is he credible when he says this? Does this type of pandering contradict his "new kind of politics?" Does he not realize that a smart commander in chief would never even reveal such a strategy in public? Does he not understand that advocating a military strike in Pakistan, a US ally in the War on Terrorism, contradicts his positioning as an antiwar candidate? Does he not realize that this only brings up new questions about his lack of experience?

It's one thing for people unfamiliar with "The Obama" to have these kinds of questions. But lately, one gets the sense that even his most hopeful supporters are beginning to feel a bit let down by him. They like him personally and really want him to succeed, but his freshness is wearing off and voters fear there's not a lot of policy heft or legislative achievements hiding underneath that glowing aura. These people are wondering if Obama's second act is nowhere as good as his first.

In light of his recent comments, expect support for Obama to wane over the next few weeks. The direct beneficiaries of his self-destruction will be Clinton, Biden, Dodd, and Richardson. Doubts people have about Obama's experience may be a bit more reluctant to support the similarly inexperienced Edwards.

The fact that Obama has raised so much money from so many people shows that a lot of people are drawn to him, but the fact that he is failing to rise in national polls after an initial surge last winter shows that not as many people are drawn to his candidacy.

7 comment(s):

Brett said...

That's possible, but keep in mind that ultimately these national polls are utterly worthless except as a general sign of whether the public likes or dislikes a candidate. Considering how close they are, that makes that not particularly helpful.

What matters are the state-by-state polls and the total electoral vote count, and Obama still has an enormous advantage there - all he has to get is all of Kerry's states, plus New Mexico, Iowa (where he's been leading), and Colorado (where he's been leading). If he can get those, he's got it.

Political Realm said...

It's hard to measure the enthusiasm on the Democratic side right now. Without knowing that, it's difficult to gauge the Palin-mania.

I would add that I think Palin's greatest asset to McCain thus far is that she has truly shaken up the race. I don't know whether the electorate has made any lasting, significant shift or even if it will. But her selection has change the coverage, it has changed the Republican mood, and it has Obama off balance (and they rarely appear so).

Now we'll find out just how good Obama's campaign team really is.

Brett said...

Has she shaken up the race, though? The post-convention poll only put the McCain-Palin ticket at slightly above the Obama-Biden ticket (again, remember that national polls ultimately don't mean anything), which isn't exactly revolutionary.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

interesting position

Brett said...

Who are you referring to, Torrance?

In any case, like I said, the thing to keep your eye on are all the Kerry states, plus the three I mentioned (plus Nevada, although Nevada is still probably ahead).

North Carolina is pretty much a goner going by the current polls. McCain is up by 20% in the latest poll; Obama would really have to aggressively attack the state, and even then it would be iffy.

Political Realm said...

I don't know that she's really shaken up the numbers, Brett. Eventually the hype will die down. But what I was getting at was that she's helped to change the mood.

I think an overlooked story in all the Clinton v. Obama hoopla before the conventions was the depression and division with the Republicans. She has changed the mood on the right significantly.

In doing so, I think she has or will secure some of the soft Republican states for McCain (South Dakota, Indiana, obviously Alaska, Georgia, etc). Republican apathy gave Obama an opening in those places.

As for NC, I think it was always and still is a reach, but that 20 point poll was a clear outlier. Two polls since and all polls prior have shown that.

Thomas said...

Palmer said, "It's one thing for people unfamiliar with "The Obama" to have these kinds of questions. But lately, one gets the sense that even his most hopeful supporters are beginning to feel a bit let down by him."

Almost every time I listen to Obama during the campaign, I am reassured. In fact, he's almost the only thing that reassures me. I'm not convinced he's going to win, but win or lose he will have done it his way, with honor and dignity.

I think people on both sides are quick to panic when things aren't going perfect. As much as I've wanted a convincing win for the Democrats, I think I've always known this election was going to be extremely close.

Ultimately, this election is urban vs. rural, has been since 2000. The battle lines have been drawn and the deciding factor will be who gets out the vote. Unfortunately, I agree with McCain's campaign manager that this election will not be about the issues. Sadly, the issues really don't matter that much as long as people have bread and circuses (cheap food and entertainment). As long as people can afford the fast food dollar menu and cable Tv, very little will change in this country.

Damn, now I need to go listen to Obama again...

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.