It’s hard to hate Barack Obama. When friends tell me he inspires them, I can’t disagree. When he speaks, he has a way of lifting his long hands in front of his shoulders and slowly rocking them back and forth, as if he is literally measuring the breadth of an issue — or perhaps honing his messianic imitation. I remember watching him answer some absurdly vague question about education policy, and up went the hands, spread shoulder-length in front of him as his eyes relaxed, as though to say: “I know this is a complicated issue that has eluded voters and politicians for a long time, but I’m beginning to see it. It’s here, in clear focus in front of me. And now, I’d like to talk to you about what I’m seeing.” (Full disclosure about me.)
That’s Obama’s strength: a confidence so calm that when he speaks in front of thousands of supporters, or even millions of viewers, he looks like he could be speaking to a neighbor while he pushes his daughter on a swing. From a friend, such effortless sincerity might be merely charming. But from politicians, who often seem no more than fleshy robots programmed with automated answers, it is downright inspiring.
The obvious question is: If Obama is so naturally inspiring, why hasn’t he inspired more people? Since surging in national and statewide polls when he announced his candidacy in March, Obama has fallen way behind Hillary Clinton in national polls (she leads by around 20 percentage points). But more importantly, he has lost ground in the key primary states: He is down by more than 20 percentage points in New Hampshire, Florida and California. In the only state Obama leads — Illinois, where he has served in state government since the early 1990s and where he currently holds a Senate seat — his lead doesn’t even cover the margin of error. Thanks a lot, Oprah.
Obamaphiles could be excused for asking, “What the Hill are voters thinking?” Their candidate has more charisma than JFK, a smile that would make a Hollywood starlet blush, and a suit-sans-tie style that looks great on both CSPAN and Spin Magazine. But the man who is first in the heart of students nationwide still runs second his in party. What gives?
I recently heard a great explanation for why Hillary is leading in all national and most state polls: values voters choose Obama; interest voters choose Hillary.
This makes sense to me for two reasons. First, think about the kind of people who are statistically in the Obama camp: students, young professionals and more affluent, well-educated mothers and fathers. I’m not about to say that these people do not have interests. Many want the government to relax student loan laws, pay greater attention to education standards, and project a domestic policy that revolves around rearing children safely. But these are voters who can afford to vote with their hearts instead of their wallets.
Now think about the kind of voters in the Hillary camp: older African Americans, middle-class women. Many of these voters can’t afford to go another eight years without health care and they need an administration that places middle class concerns first. African Americans have not yet flocked to Obama like so many expected. It might have to do with the fact that Obama has convinced plenty of voters that he represents a new kind of politics, but he hasn’t convinced voters that he has the experience to fight for their interests as effectively as Hillary. As Rev. Al Sharpton recently put it, “Right now we’re hearing a lot of media razzle-dazzle…I’m not hearing a lot of meat, or a lot of content.”
Obama’s performance from the stump lifted him to the top echelon of the presidential hopefuls. But there have been a few times this summer when he might have been better off using his expressive hands to cover his mouth. To count off the episodes: 1) He somewhat hastily promised to meet with the world’s most dangerous leaders in his first year in office in the CNN/YouTube debate, which jumpstarted a hyperbolic mudslinging event between the Obama and Clinton campaigns; 2) After promising to build diplomacy with our enemies, he announced that he would bomb our tentative ally Pakistan to root out latent terrorists; 3) He told reporters that he would never use nuclear weapons and then, perhaps after realizing he had potentially lost every military industrial vote in the country, he asked the reporter to “scratch that.”
These weren’t big mistakes. In fact, they were hardly mistakes at all. I think most Democrats would agree that we should seek diplomacy with the world’s most dangerous powers; that we should be more proactive in rooting out al-Qaida in Pakistan; and that there are drawbacks to pretending that our nukes are always “on the table.” But in the heat of summer, the news-dehydrated media seized on each story as evidence that Obama lacks experience in foreign affairs. If Obama was running against only John Edwards, the charge of inexperience wouldn’t carry much weight. But against Hillary Clinton, whose campaign slogan is “Ready to Lead; Ready to Change,” any evidence that Obama is not ready to handle foreign affairs in the middle of the War on Terror could have a big impact on national defense voters.
From the beginning of this campaign, Obama has promised to be different. He won’t take donations from lobbyists, he won’t flood the media with brutal attacks, and he’ll practice what he calls “the politics of hope.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but it’s a bad idea. Obama chose the moral high ground, but winning elections means understanding when to throw the low blow. Whoever said, “Kill ‘em with kindness” never ran for office; and if he did, the Republicans certainly killed him at the ballot box.
Obama’s promise to practice kinder, gentler politics can only backfire. Early this summer, there was a ridiculous shoving match between the Clinton and Obama camps over the two candidates’ answers to the question: Would you agree to meet with the world’s most dangerous leaders in your first year? Obama answered first, saying that he would because he wanted to reverse the Bush administration’s aversion to diplomacy. Hillary, following up, said she wanted to pursue greater diplomacy, but would not promise to meet with a dangerous dictator without first understanding his intentions. It was a smart clarification, and Obama, if given the chance to comment, would likely have agreed. Realistically, there was no difference between the candidates’ opinions. But the campaigns turned this small crevice of a distinction into a war trench, firing shots at each other in the form of press releases and cable news appearances.
The lesson many people took away from this silly spat was that it will be difficult for Obama to mount an offensive against Hillary without seeming contradictory. Whenever Obama gets feisty, the opposing candidate can always say: “What ever happened to the politics of hope?” Nothing destroys a campaign more than the appearance of pervasive hypocrisy, because nobody votes for a candidates they don’t trust. By promising to operate under the politics of hope, Obama has stepped into this heavyweight fight with one arm tied behind his back.
Obama is a minority’s candidate. No, not that minority. President Bill Clinton’s exceptional relationship with black voters has paid rich dividends for Hillary, who still outpaces Obama among African Americans. I’m talking about us — politically involved students and yuppies. When was the last time you heard about young people swinging an election? Like never, right? Now how about a primary election? That’s the problem. Winning the national collegiate primary is like winning a Grammy. Sure, it might earn you a few magazine covers, but few consider it a predictor of future success.
None of Obama’s problems would matter if he had an unassailable block of dedicated voters, like the women’s vote for Hillary. But instead of a reliable cadre of supporters, Obama has people like you and me — liberal students and young professionals. We are the dangerously small minority in this country, the voice that is neither seen nor heard by the eyes and ears in the Capitol. Obama’s youngest supporters are among his most ardent. They are also his most impotent.
In May 2007, Obama made a stirring speech in Detroit urging automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars to meet the rising demand for energy conservation. That’s a good thing: The US auto industry is a 20th century dinosaur competing in a 21st century economy, and Detroit’s Big Three could use a little stirring up. But rather than offer compromise, Obama offered bromides: “There are two kinds of car companies – those that mass produce fuel-efficient cars and those that will. The American auto industry can no longer afford to be one of those that will,” he said.
That’s a fine speech, but it’s poor politics. Automakers in Detroit were incensed that a freshman senator had the nerve to tell them how to run their auto industry, and Michigan voters felt like Obama had swooped into their state to address their failures instead of their concerns. When Hillary spoke in Detroit one month later, she made the same point about energy efficiency, but she offered the shift in policy as a bargain. We’ll help your autoworker retirees with health care, she said, and we’ll invest in energy saving technologies for the next line of Fords and Chevies; but in exchange, Detroit needs to close the gap with Tokyo. Today Hillary leads Michigan by almost exactly the same margin she leads Obama and Edwards nationally: 38%-22%-15% according to the RealClearPolitics poll average.
Obama has said on numerous occasions that he wants to unite the country and end special interests politics in Washington. He’s banking on values to save his campaign — like change and unity and new directions. But what wins elections for the Democratic Party aren’t values, but interests — better health care coverage, better schools and stronger defense. As long as millions of Americans decide elections on these issues, special interests groups will decide to stake millions of dollars on them, too. With his poll numbers stagnant over the last four months, Obama and special interests have one big thing in common — at this point, it doesn’t look like either of them are going anywhere.
*Full Disclosure: I worked for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign over the summer in Washington, DC. I understand that this is a blasphemy at Northwestern that belongs somewhere between painting The Rock maize and blue and using it as a porta-potty. For this offense, I won’t ask for your forgiveness right away, because in Chicago or at any college (and especially at a college in Chicago), mine is an unforgivable offense. But my views haven’t changed that much. I still like Barack Obama; I still think John Edwards has some fascinating economic policy ideas; and I still have major bones with most of the Republican candidates. But I’m not interested in converting anybody with my columns — I just want to explain what I’ve read and what I’ve seen in these early stages of the campaign in a way that is both honest and entertaining.