About two weeks ago, his wife Michelle kicked off the Democratic Party Convention with a charismatic speech on his behalf. Later in the convention, Hillary and bill Clinton declared their support for his historic candidacy. They also urged the millions of Hillary supporters to vote for him.
However, following the Democrats’ stunning and well-orchestrated show, the expectations for a shift failed to materialize. Even the slight lead in the polls enjoyed by Barack Obama disappeared in the wake of the Republican Convention last week. In fact, Obama and his Republican rival McCain are heading into the last stretch of the campaign at a virtual dead heat.
What’s going on here? How could it be that a candidate who was able to sweep millions of party members during the primaries is finding it so difficult to do so in the fight for the general public’s support? One major reason is his choice for vice president. This is the first opportunity to truly examine the candidate’s decision-making ability and his judgment.
Hence, in a move perceived as brilliant by many, in electoral terms at least, McCain chose a female running mate. In a secret operation, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was flown to the event and McCain announced his intention to appoint her as his VP. Ever since then, her nomination has not stopped making headlines.
Obama, on the other hand, chose Joe Biden, a veteran senator considered highly experienced on the foreign affairs front, yet unrestrained in respect to his public statements. Even Hillary Clinton, who ever since her primaries loss has made every effort to show her support for Obama, could not hold back and responded positively after being asked about Palin.
Beyond being politically attractive in the view of some disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters, Palin boosts McCain among evangelicals as well. When she was pregnant with her fifth child, the fetus was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. Her objection to abortions prompted her to give birth anyway. Her uncompromising conservatism on this front and in other matters and her great connection to religion may draw radical rightist voters back to the Republicans. Her impassioned speech during the Republican Party Convention encouraged thousands of party activists to return to active duty on behalf of McCain.
The result of all this is that Obama continues to face difficulties in enlisting the support of white middle-class voters. Now, he is also forced to contend with the fact that “thanks to him” the party that has nominated a charismatic and successful woman to the post of VP is the Republican Party, rather than his own party.
When it comes to McCain, it is easier to predict the weather than his next moves. During the party convention he was able to translate the tactical advantage of Palin’s surprising nomination into a strategic asset. However, this decision may be proven to be a hasty step.
In the convention’s closing speech McCain positioned himself as an independent-thinking politician willing to reach out a hand to his political rivals. In apparent contradiction to Obama, the future of the nation rather than his own future have been prominent in McCain’s campaign – indeed, John McCain should not be underestimated. We are dealing with a veteran political figure who has been able to surprise and win as an underdog.
On the other hand, Obama scores points on charisma, ideological sparkle, popularity among the younger generation, and an unprecedented ability to raise funds. On the other hand, he is perceived as an inexperienced elitist. There are also some areas where he is more vulnerable than McCain. For example, his views on subjects that have not yet been discussed and may be raised now, such as the legal system, could hurt him. Finally, Obama has not yet dealt with personal and political mudslinging of the type that killed John Kerry’s candidacy.
Obama himself is aware of his vulnerabilities and the criticism leveled at him, and modifies his messages according. In recent appearances he shunned the celebrity image that has been attributed to him. Obama presented his policy assertively and harshly attacked McCain and the Republicans.
However, Obama knows that he cannot go too far with changes to his image and message. American voters despise wavering views. Obama cannot preach for unity on the one hand, yet on the other hand slam the opposing party too harshly. Therefore, we should see whether he is able to find the right balance and refrain from being perceived as an opportunist. Finally, there is great importance to the manner in which Obama will contend with unexpected events ahead of the elections, ranging from a potential terror attack on US soil to political and personal slander of the worst kind.
The writer is a political science professor at the University in Albany