The Surprising Incompetence of Barack Obama
Saturday, Republican activists claimed to have rescued thousands of American flags left over from the Democrat National Convention from being sent to a landfill. They grabbed the flags and took them a Colorado Springs McCain-Palin rally, where they were distributed to the audience as a reminder of Barack Obama’s cavalier attitude towards one of our nation’s most treasured symbols.
People paid attention to the story, too. Drudge linked it, which guaranteed thousands of hits, and it appeared at Fox News’ website, as well as many conservative blogs. This episode made Obama look bad, and contributed, albeit slightly, to his current plunge in national polls.
Really, this sort of thing is totally excusable. Conventions are big events which take months to prepare, and weeks to clean up after. It’s easy to see how some low-paid staffer could mistakenly discard some flags (there were over 125,000 flags used at the Convention), or give that impression by storing them next to a Dumpster (which is the Obama camp’s story—that they were simply being stored before being sent back to the manufacturer).
So this story is relatively unimportant. It should have been a non-story—but it was. It is a perfect example of the staggering clumsiness of Barack Obama’s campaign. It might be a bit unfair to expect Obama to be far ahead in the polls at this point—no candidate could maintain Obama’s messiah façade, and improving conditions in Iraq mean that Republican candidates no longer have to worry about an unpopular war. But still, Bush is massively (and deservedly) unpopular, the economy is weak, and voters overwhelmingly believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect Obama to be up by fifteen points. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to be up, say, eight.
But he’s not. In fact, right now, he’s not up at all—McCain is leading by about three points. Granted some of McCain’s lead comes from his convention bounce, but then, his bounce is much bigger than Obama’s was. (Obama went from about two up in the RCP poll average to six up; McCain went from six down to three up). And McCain has been at Obama’s heels all summer.
So why is Obama losing? As in all things political, there is no one reason. His stark anti-war message probably doesn’t resonate with voters as he’d like it to, and the economy is isn’t quite as bad as he paints it. And his last two debate performances (the Pennsylvania one with Hillary, and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Forum) have not gone well, and he started badly due to the nomination fight with Hillary Clinton. But the root cause of Obama’s poll trouble lie in the fact that his campaign is, in many ways, clueless.
One of Obama’s most valuable traits was his ability to seem larger than life, a man who walked with kings, yet never lost the common touch; someone who understood yet somehow transcended modern politics. This trait drew massive crowds, enthusiastic supporters, and rallied young voters.
Then McCain called him a celebrity, and it was all gone. He released a funny, audacious ad, and suddenly people started drawing comparisons between Obama and Paris Hilton. When Obama gave his convention speech in front of some white pillars, people saw a Greek temple instead of the White House, or the Lincoln Memorial, or a half-off Macy’s sale (which is, apparently, what the pillars looked like in person).
Or take Obama’s choice of his running mate. He hit upon the wonderful idea of texting his pick directly to his supporters, ensuring that they would be the very first to know, and showing his familiarity with modern technology. But he only sent his message after the media had learned of his pick, and sent it at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. Obama’s big day was ruined—not because of anything McCain did, but thanks to an easily avoidable, unforced error.
Of course, these are the most significant mistakes; Obama’s campaign has made a host of more minor gaffes. (Off the top of my head: Biden calling Obama “Barack America”, “abortion is above my pay grade”, Biden: “life begins at conception” Obama: “I don’t have the votes to take your guns”). McCain, in contrast (and surprisingly) has run a tight, solid no-mistakes campaign.
If Obama were to tighten up his campaign, he would not be guaranteed a victory in November. But he would be able to build an strong opposing narrative, and fire up his supporters. His primary campaign was nearly flawless. If he wants to win in November, his general election campaign must be nearly flawless as well.