Why is Obama Not Holding a Commanding Lead Right Now?

Violence in Iraq is down to 2003 levels, the Congress is in recess for a month, and frankly we’re entering what should be a very slow news period. So you can expect some “inside baseball” posts about the political campaigns as they enter their last 3 months (thank goodness) before the election.

George Will hits on one of the most intriguing aspect of the campaign so far. What does Barack Obama have to do or say to close the deal? This year, by all estimates, should be a walk over for Democrats. Nothing, as concerns their electoral goals, should be in question if you believe the conventional wisdom.

Yet today, Rasumussen points to the first time in their daily tracking poll that McCain has taken a lead over Obama.

Why? Why doesn’t Obama have a 10 point lead over McCain?

Will covers recent swing Obama took through Europe and the fact that it brought nothing, in terms of electoral residuals, to the Obama camp:

But polls taken since his trip abroad do not indicate that Obama succeeded in altering the oddest aspect of this presidential campaign: Measured against his party’s surging strength in every region and at every level, he is dramatically underperforming. Surely this fact is related to anxieties about his thin résumé regarding national security matters, the thinnest of any major party nominee since Wendell Willkie in 1940. But the fact also might be related to fatigue from too much of Obama’s eloquence, which is beginning to sound formulaic and perfunctory.

In other words, people are beginning to look beyond the words as they’ve become somewhat used to the rhetoric. And perhaps his other point is valid as well. Obama has been in the headlines for 16 or 17 months. Perhaps it is more than just fatigue from “too much of Obama’s eloquence”. Perhaps it is Obama fatigue in general.

With the tight primary race which kept him in the news, followed by the European trip in which the media fell all over itself to give wall-to-wall coverage, perhaps people are simply growing tired of Obama in general. I mean being behind McCain at any point in this process, given the expectations for Democrats, can’t be helped but considered “underperforming” as Will points out.

So what is it? Why is Obama, who everyone agrees is a great speaker and an attractive candidate, running this close to John McCain at this time?

I mentioned this last night on the podcast, and I believe this to be part of the problem – while Europeans love to talk about their disdain for America, Americans, while not quite as open about it as their European brothers, match their disdain for us with disdain for Europe. So trotting off to Europe to stage-manage a spectacle of 200,000 cheering Germans may not be the best way to impress American voters.

Cosmopolitanism is not, however, a political asset for American presidential candidates. Least of all is it an asset for Obama, one of whose urgent needs is to seem comfortable with America’s vibrant and very un-European patriotism, which is grounded in a sense of virtuous exceptionalism.

Also beginning to really come to the fore is the lack of resume. 10 years in public office, 5 of which have been spent running for higher office. He is the John Edwards of this election cycle. And Edwards was a 15% candidate, partly because he was so inexperienced that voters were leery of him in a leadership role.

Then there is the blatant fact that we’re at war. Not just Iraq which seems to be winding down, but the longer running war in Afghanistan which presently has no end in sight. So the commander-in-chief role is also beginning to come under scrutiny and again his very thin resume is not helping him. Nor is the fact he was dead wrong about the surge.

Domestic issues are where Obama should have a commanding lead, and in most cases he does. The question is, is that enough? The further question is, can he hold on to that lead? The economy is issue number one, and the number one economic issue is the price of fuel. There Obama and the Democrats sit on the other side of the vast majority of Americans who have decided that exploiting our resources of oil and natural gas is something which should be done and done immediately.

And any look at the “why” of his seeming underperformance must also factor in race. Race has been injected into this election as much by Obama and his supporters as anyone. I think you have to assume that some level of the “Bradley effect” is in play in this election as well. But I’ll again point out that it isn’t Republicans that will be responsible for such an effect – they’re not going to vote for him to begin with. If there is a Bradley effect in this election it will be because Democratic voters (or those professing to be Dem voters supporting Obama) will not pull the lever for him in the voting booth because he is black.

All of this combines to make this a very complex campaign season. Obama continues to cast about for a way to portray himself in a pleasing way to the majority of the voters while the McCain campaign seems content, at the moment, to help frame the perception of Obama in a way which most helps them.

I think that right now it is the result of three things – Obama fatigue, success by the McCain campaign in characterizing Obama unflatteringly, and Obama being unable, as of yet, to hit upon the formula of appeal necessary to win in November – which has the numbers this close.

Whether Obama can overcome the Bradley effect, satisfy those concerned about his thin resume and change the perception of him that the McCain campaign is trying to paint remain to be seen (and O-Force One isn’t helping). If not, we all may be in for a surprise in November, especially the Democrats and their “can’t lose” candidate.

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