John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin threw Barack Obama off his stride to the extent that it sometimes seems that he thinks he is running against Palin for Vice President. The conventional wisdom is that Obama needs to get back on message.
Perhaps. I wonder, though, what message he is supposed to get back to? Obama won the Democratic nomination with two themes: 1) I represent change, and 2) I’m the purest anti-war candidate. But even by the middle of the Democratic primary process those themes were wearing thin. Obama’s substance-free “yes we can” mantra had become a standing joke and, with the U.S. well on the way to success in Iraq, Obama’s anti-war position was becoming simultaneously suspect and moot.
When he transitioned to the general election, Obama acted as though he were running against George Bush. His main message was that John McCain is a Bush clone. But that message didn’t sell, and the more the public focuses on the race, listens to McCain and looks forward rather than backward, the less power it has. John McCain is obviously anything but the second coming of George Bush.
It is true, of course, that Bush is unpopular and that after either party has occupied the White House for eight years, countless grievances have accumulated and many voters are ready to give the other guys a chance. But that is a fact, not a message. It’s already factored into the candidates’ standing in the polls, and Obama can’t just stand up and say “I’m not a Republican.” Besides, Republicans’ standing with the voters, as measured by party identification and generic Congressional preference, is rising, not falling.
So what, exactly, is the message that Obama should go back to? It’s not an easy question to answer. He can’t focus on his own achievements, because there aren’t many. Worse, major areas of Obama’s past are off limits. He really doesn’t want to open up a conversation about his years in Indonesia or at Harvard Law School, or about his work as a “community organizer” in Chicago or the friends he made there. Nor can he talk in any detail about his role as a legislator in Springfield or Washington, since he has been a go along/get along careerist, not a reformer like John McCain or Sarah Palin.
What does that leave? Mostly, hoping for bad news. The Obama campaign assumes that anything bad that happens, whether a hurricane or a bankruptcy, somehow strengthens their position. They might be right. But, apart from the fact that it’s not a very attractive basis on which to run for President, it’s not at all clear that if times are tough, it will make people want to pull the lever for an untested, unqualified, uncreative and–strangest of all–still largely unknown politician.
So it will be interesting to see what message, exactly, Obama decides to get “back” to.
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