Can Obama adjust?

In the post immediately below this one, John shows that Barack Obama’s recent attempt to play the race card against John McCain hasn’t succeeded. It seems that few thought the McCain ad which apparently caused Obama to invoke his race was racist, while a majority thought that it was racist for Obama to say that he doesn’t look like the presidents on the dollar bills.

I consider this to be part of a broader problem that plagues Obama’s campaign: the approach that won him the nomination is precisely the wrong approach for winning the general election.

Obama pulled his remarkable upset over Hillary Clinton by running a messianic campaign and by invoking race-based sympathy when the Clintons tried to bring him down to earth. This approach was perfectly tailored to defeating Hillary. To upset the strong presumptive nominee, Obama had to (1) come off as something extra special and (2) win the black vote by huge margins. The “chosen one” theme helped accomplish the first goal; the backlash against the Clintons when they challenged that theme helped accomplish the second. Even so, Obama limped to the finish line, as the messianic theme began to wear thin and Bill Clinton stopped playing into Obama’s hands on race.

Having locked up the nomination, Obama understood that he would need to tack towards the center on substance, and he has done so with breathtaking cynicism. As to his style, however, Obama seemed to believe that no change was called for. The idea (a not entirely implausble one) was that his personal charisma coupled with some moderation on key issues would represent an unbeatable combination.

Recent events, however, have raised serious doubts on this score. Obama’s trip abroad was a good test. The candidate turned on the style and received a bump in the polls. But the backlash against the arrogance and pretentiousness of the enterprise seems to have more than offset the initial boost in popularity. Swing voters apparently aren’t looking for the messiah this year, at least they are not for someone who plays that part on tv.

Moreover, invoking race after being made fun of was plainly a bad idea. Many Democratic primary voters respond like Pavlov’s dogs to claims of victimhood, especially if race is involved. The rest of the population is inclined to weigh the merits. Since McCain has not come close to attacking Obama on racial grounds, Obama’s use of the race card fell flat.

As an outsider and an underdog, Obama could not have won the nomination running as a generic Democrat. But his best bet for winning the general election in this year’s pro-Democrat environment is to present himself as precisely that.

The calculus could hardly be more straightforward. Yet old habits sometimes die hard, especially if those habits emanate from deep within a candidate’s psyche. It’s one thing for Obama to trim on the issues; for him they don’t seem to matter much. It may be prove quite another thing for him to trim on his self image.

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