By Stuart Rothenberg
As Democrats kick off their national convention to nominate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as their nominee for president, there is little or no evidence that activists or insiders are having second thoughts about the party’s standard-bearer.
In other words, buyer’s remorse has not settled in, and it probably won’t unless Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) nips Obama at the wire 10 weeks from now.
Yet only the most uncritical party insider could avoid asking himself or herself the obvious question as delegates gather in Denver: Did Democrats, who two years ago placed no higher priority on selecting a candidate than on picking someone who could win back the White House in 2008, really pick the right person to carry the party’s banner this year?
Obama remains the favorite to win in November, but he has not yet come close to locking up the race, even with a political landscape that is slanted so completely in his party’s favor.
Because of that, it’s hard not to wonder whether his party would be in a far more secure position to win the White House if Democrats in Denver were preparing to nominate Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner or any of a number of other Democrats, possibly including New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
On one hand, voters remain very unhappy with the Bush administration and with the direction of the country, and Obama remains one of the party’s strongest messengers for “change.”
Moreover, the Illinois Democrat’s ability to excite younger voters and mobilize African-Americans is unmatched when compared to other potential Democratic nominees. Unlike what Clinton or Biden could have done as the party’s presidential nominee, Obama may be able to change the traditional political arithmetic this year, benefiting Democrats up and down the ballot in many states.
But Obama’s shortcomings, most particularly his limited experience, his difficulty connecting with older, working-class white voters and his inability to ease voter doubts about his ability to handle foreign policy crises, make him inherently a riskier choice for the White House.
The Senator’s supporters, of course, argue that events have proved the soundness of his judgment, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities during the next two and a half months to do what Ronald Reagan did in 1980 — convince undecided voters that he has the toughness, astuteness and levelheadedness to protect U.S. interests abroad and deal with tough, even ruthless, adversaries.
But at least at this point in the campaign, with the surge in Iraq apparently paying dividends and the Russian invasion of Georgia reminding Americans of the dangers that still exist internationally, Obama looks far more fragile as a nominee than he did five months ago, riding the wave of change.
Surprisingly to those who thought that Republican presidential standard-bearer McCain would run an upbeat, largely positive campaign, the Arizona Senator has hammered away repeatedly at Obama’s readiness for the top job, keeping himself very much in a race that he should not be in.
While Democrats have been salivating for more than a year about making the ’08 race a referendum on outgoing Bush and the war in Iraq, McCain’s campaign has succeeded in making the election as much about Obama. And the Republican has brilliantly turned Obama’s celebrity status, big crowds and media infatuation into a synonym for shallowness.
A four-day lovefest in Denver is likely to energize Democrats attending the event and the millions of others who will follow it through the media, convincing all that a Democratic victory is nearly inevitable. That’s what happened in Los Angeles in 2000 and four years later in Boston, when first Al Gore and then Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) accepted their party’s nominations.
Given that, it’s very unlikely that even a single Democratic delegate will leave Denver on Friday believing that Obama will lose. But the more important question is whether two months from now Democrats will be so certain of victory, or whether they will start to wonder if they selected a nominee who made them feel good about themselves but lacked one or two of the basic qualities that voters are looking for in a commander in chief.
For many undecided American voters, the question is likely to be a simple one: Do they feel comfortable with Obama sitting in the Oval Office, making decisions that will affect people’s lives, including the nation’s security?
Only a few months ago, it was Clinton’s campaign raising questions about Obama’s readiness for the presidency. McCain has picked up that message and delivered it repeatedly and with considerable effectiveness. The Illinois Democrat needs to address that problem quickly, and he’ll need more than soaring rhetoric about change and unity to be successful.
This column first appeared on RollCall.com on August 25, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
By Stuart Rothenberg