Aug 7th 2008
THE most politically potent emotion of the past 18 months has been Obamamania. This condition allowed a neophyte senator from Illinois to seize his party’s nomination from the jaws of the formidable Clinton machine. The big question now hanging over American politics is whether Obamamania is giving way to Obama fatigue. Mr Obama has everything going for him in the race for the White House. Almost 80% of Americans think that the country is heading in the wrong direction. People are disgruntled with George Bush’s Republicans and worried sick about the economy. Mr Obama is also running a far better campaign than his rival—smooth and professional where the McCain campaign is slapdash and amateurish.
Yet the polls tell a different story. A Gallup/USA Today poll showed John McCain beating Mr Obama by 49% to 45% among likely voters. The cash-rich Obama campaign has been pouring money into the battleground states. But, if anything, the polls in those states are tightening. Generic Democrats enjoy a 10-15 point advantage over Republicans. But add the names Obama and McCain to the mix and you get a statistical tie. This suggests that, for all their energy and professionalism, the Democrats may have made a big strategic error: allowing the election to become a referendum on their candidate rather than a verdict on the Bush years. This was probably inevitable if you run a mould-breaking candidate (in retrospect, the Democrats might have been better advised to run a white male rather than getting into a slugfest between a woman and a black). But Mr Obama is hardly a master of deflecting attention from himself.
The junior senator from Illinois is strikingly self-obsessed even by the standards of politicians. He has already written two autobiographies. He seems to be happiest as a politician addressing huge crowds of adoring fans. His convention speech at Denver was always going to be an extraordinary moment, given that he will be delivering it on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. But Mr Obama decided to move it to a local sports stadium that has room for 75,000.There are worrying signs, for the Democrats, that Obama fatigue is beginning to set in. A Pew poll this week showed that 76% of respondents named Mr Obama as the candidate they had heard most about compared with 11% who named Mr McCain. But close to half (48%) of Pew’s interviewees said that they had been hearing too much about Mr Obama—and 22% said that they have formed a less favourable opinion of him recently.
Mr Obama is undoubtedly an enormously talented public speaker. But his rhetorical tropes can begin to pall, particularly in a campaign that has already gone on for 18 months. How many more times can Americans hear the phrase “Yes we can” without wondering whether they really want to? George Will, a conservative columnist, notes that Disraeli’s gibe about Gladstone might well apply to Mr Obama—he is “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”. Mr Obama may be ill-served by his hallelujah corner in the press. The Pew survey suggests that the frenzy of media coverage of Mr Obama is creating a backlash. He may also be ill-served by some of his more over-the-top supporters who treat him like a rock star rather than a statesman. “Barack Obama is inspiring us like a desert lover, a Washington Valentino,” Lili Haydn wrote in the Huffington Post. “Couples all over America are making love again and shouting ‘Yes we can’ as they climax.”
The McCain team has been quick to spot its opportunity. It has released a series of advertisements that are designed to pummel the president-in-waiting. One quotes an NBC reporter confessing that “it’s almost hard to remain objective while covering Obama because the energy of the campaign is so infectious.” Another compares him to Moses. Mr McCain also keeps saying that Mr Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign. This onslaught cleverly tries to turn Mr Obama’s qualities—his youthful good looks and devoted supporters—into weaknesses. It also sends a clear message to voters: Mr McCain equals country first, Mr Obama equals Obama first.
This strategy is far from risk-free for Mr McCain. It threatens to dilute his brand as a straight-talking anti-Washington reformer. He has surrounded himself with veterans of the George Bush-Karl Rove machine: the man behind the latest ads, Steve Schmidt, was the person Mr Rove put in charge of the Bush war-room during the 2004 election. Mr McCain has also engaged in some decidedly unstraight talk. He has complained loudly that Mr Obama failed to visit wounded soldiers in Germany, ignoring the fact that his rival had visited injured troops in Iraq.
Mr McCain needs to win over undecided and independent voters if he is to have any chance of winning the White House. He also needs to come up with his own version of a “change” agenda for an electorate that is desperate for something new. But the more he employs Mr Bush’s footsoldiers and borrows from Mr Rove’s playbook, the more he opens himself up to the criticism that he is offering another four years of Mr Bush. The same polls that show the race narrowing also show that Mr McCain has not managed to break 46% in the Gallup tracking poll since Mr Obama won the nomination.
The Obama machine also remains formidable: it is impossible to wander around American cities these days without coming across enthusiastic young canvassers. But Mr Obama needs to reframe the election so that it is less about him and more about the issues. And he needs to abandon the rhetorical high ground for the nitty-gritty of policy. Otherwise the general election could prove to be the second coronation in a row, after Hillary’s implosion, that has ended with a surprise.
Source: the Economist