From the August 13, 2008 Daily Telegraph (London)
August 13, 2008
by Irwin Stelzer
Pundits here are struggling to understand one thing about the presidential elections. They know that President Bush is massively unpopular.
They know that the vast majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, engaged in an unpopular war, and headed towards recession.
They know that polls of "generic" preferences show that voters, by a very substantial majority, say they prefer Democrats to the Republicans.
And they know that Barack Obama's opulently funded campaign has been a study in precision and efficiency, while John McCain has scrambled for funds, stumbled on television, and been forced once again to reorganise his staff.
So why isn't Obama running so far ahead that the election is a mere formality? Yes, the Illinois senator is behaving very presidentially - addressing massed Germans in Berlin, for a while having a faux presidential seal fronting his podium, moving confidently from one adoring audience to another.
But the polls suggest that the candidates are in a dead heat.
Some put this down to race. But race cuts both ways in this election.
Ignore the fact that only five per cent of Americans say they would not vote for a black presidential candidate. More important is the 19 per cent who say that most of the people they know - not including themselves, of course - would not vote for such a candidate.
On the other side of the ledger is the massive increase in registration and participation of black and pro-Obama Hispanic voters, white voters eager to demonstrate their lack of prejudice by voting for a black candidate, and folks who believe that the mere fact that Obama is black means that the world will think better of America if its electorate relocates Obama from the Senate to the Oval Office.
In sum, it is difficult to tell just how much race might be affecting the polls, or would affect them if respondents felt unembarrassed to tell the truth, and in which direction.
Other equally knowledgeable observers put Obama's failure to run away with the election down to his exotic background.
Long-time Democratic strategist Mark Penn, in an e-mail he thought was private but fell into the hands of The Atlantic's Joshua Green, said of Obama: "His roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited." That troubles Americans, who contrast Obama with the straight-talking war hero John McCain.
But that is not all. Obama has always been something of an aloof loner. In the Illinois state senate, he remained uncommitted on most issues.
At the University of Chicago Law School, he did not participate in faculty discussions about the school's future. In the US Senate, he seems to have made few close friends, at least until the vice-presidency became within his gift. He is, says NYT columnist David Brooks, a "sojourner… Obama lives apart… He absorbed things from those diverse places [in which he lived and worked], but was not fully of them."
As a result, voters "find him hard to place". He carries "cool" to the point of aloofness. He is seen more as a Chablis-sipping intellectual than someone Joe Sixpack would want to go bowling with.
Combine his initial refusal to wear an American-flag lapel pin, pictures of Obama declining to salute the flag and his failure to visit injured soldiers at their Berlin hospital, with his unusual background, and it is not difficult to understand why voters are nervous at the prospect of this elegant, eloquent politician becoming commander-in-chief of the world's only superpower.
Less fun to talk about, but equally important, are questions of policy. Obama won the nomination in part because he opposed Iraq from the start, and because he promised that his first act as president would be to order his generals to withdraw all troops within 16 months.
Well, not all troops: some would remain to train Iraqis and cope with any upsurge of terrorists attacks. And not necessarily in 16 months.
He said he would sit down with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with no preconditions. Well, no preconditions, but with a lot of advance preparation.
He promised to oppose all drilling for oil offshore. Well, not all drilling, only environmentally unacceptable drilling, a retreat made necessary by the fact that the majority of Americans, groaning under the burden of $4 petrol, are demanding that the government allow rapid development of domestic oil reserves.
Perhaps most important, Obama presented himself as a post-racial candidate, and then played the race card, by accusing McCain of trying to frighten voters by pointing out that Obama does not look like the presidents on their currency. Which McCain would never do and did not do.
McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, summed up the situation last Sunday. "The mood of the country is very sour… People don't like the [Republican] Party… If someone had told me a year ago … we could wind up dead-even with the Democratic nominee in this kind of political environment just before our convention, that would have been fantastic to me."
But Davis knows that his candidate has a long way to go. McCain's economic message has been incoherent.
He is for free markets, but attacks oil company profits as obscene. He wants to get Americans to use less petrol, but proposed to lower petrol taxes - and encourage consumption - during the driving season. He says he is against all tax increases, but then says he is willing to consider raising payroll taxes.
On Monday, Obama, speaking from his holiday retreat in Hawaii, managed to come up with a tougher reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia than did McCain. Eager to show that he is tough enough to be commander-in-chief, Obama suggested that Russia's application for membership in the World Trade Organisation be turned down, while McCain contented himself with head-shaking disapproval.
Soon the real campaign will start; both parties will have their conventions. Obama will have 10 weeks to persuade voters he is one of them, and McCain to convince them that a conservative Republican can feel their economic pain. There is all to play for: in 2000, more than 60 per cent of Americans made up their minds at or after the conventions.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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