Barack Obama is endangering his status as the media darling of the 2008 presidential campaign. In fact, he has been the villain in the campaign story over the last few days. Two decisions — one small and one large — showed the dangers he faces. And a third showed that the post-racial candidate is no longer in evidence. It is no secret that the media has been openly rooting for Obama for months. His gaffes would have felled other candidates, his relationship with hate-mongering preachers would have disqualified mere mortal candidates and, of course, his lack of any national record of accomplishment might have prevented all much the most ego-inflated from even mounting a White House run. But it was hanging together fairly well until last week.
The trigger for the downward slide was his decision to abandon public financing. The decision made cold political sense given his likely enormous advantage over the McCain camp but there were two complicating factors: he had shaped his career as a “reformer” and he specifically promised that he would take public financing and the rules that go along with it.
Moreover, many of his good government, liberal allies were distressed. What’s more, they went public with their distress.
And for once, the media joined in the Obama-bashing and perhaps was even harsher. It was the “low point” according to a usually sympathetic David Brooks. Clearly, the press, which had sheltered Obama from virtually every dicey incident to date, had had enough. The criticism was sharp and virtually uniform. When added to his decision to duck town hall meetings with McCain –which Obama had also said he would do, before he thought better of it — the dean of the mainstream media, David Broder was forced to admit that Obama’s “motives” might be open to question.
And the self-serving explanation was too much even for mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post. The negative reception suggested that the mainstream press may be re-evaluating their subservient behavior. At the very least, when an issue is near and dear to them, as “the corruption of money in politics” is, they appeared ready now to call foul when Obama goes a step too far.
Now ordinarily, campaign finance reform does not register high with the general public. This is a quintessential inside-the-Beltway issue. However, given the firestorm from the media and the effort by the McCain camp to expose a pattern of hypocrisy or at least cynical position-shifting by Obama, the risk for Obama is that he will lose the underlying rationale for his candidacy: the harbinger of the New Politics, a leader unlike any we have ever seen.
In short, the campaign finance move exposed the Great and Powerful Oz as an ordinary man behind that curtain.
The second incident was comical but telling. Obama had a faux seal of the U.S. — a knock off of the Great Seal — constructed for his benefit. He and others spoke with the Obama Seal in front of them last week at an appearance in Chicago. The stunt brought howls of derision from the media. It was significant for several reasons.
First, in all the Obama-mania and Obama girl swooning the media has played along, indeed has been infected by the emotional frenzy. Never have they questioned or examined the messiah-complex which envelops the Obama movement. Certainly, they have not seriously examined the arrogance of a man who knows so little but claims such grand wisdom. By laughing not with, but at, Obama the mainstream media again demonstrated the type of emotional distance one might almost mistake for journalistic independence. (Conservative pundits have been mocking Obama’s elite iconography for some time.)
Second, for patriotic Americans holding traditional value this was a bit of civic blasphemy. Will he next come up with a new flag with his image or paint his Chicago mansion white and add some columns? The presumptuousness was only outdone by the lack of reverence for existing symbols of the U.S. (And it might not have been even legal.)
The final incident in Obama’s trifecta of political problems must have come as a disappointment to those who were still holding out hope that we were entering an era of post-racial politics. Obama played the race card – loudly and blatantly. He suggested, with no evidence whatsoever, that Republicans were pointing to his race as a reason to question his fitness for the presidency. (It was reminiscent of his accusation that Jewish voters were suspicious of him, not because of his affiliation with Reverend Wright and his willingness to meet directly with Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad, but because of his middle name or because of internet rumors that he is a closet Muslim.)
That tactic seemed further evidence that his effort to minimize race are over and he now intends to use race as a sword to attack his Republican opponent. It however is a potentially dangerous strategy, almost certain to turn off some segment of white voters who do not want to be bludgeoned by racial politics.
Sometimes a political opponent does to himself what others cannot even attempt to do. It would have been virtually impossible for the McCain camp without provocation to attack Obama as a fraud and an arrogant one to boot. The media would have rolled their eyes, the Obama camp would have called it a schoolyard taunt and the public would have yawned.
But here Obama has done what weeks, if not months, of McCain ads and speeches could not: scuff up almost beyond recognition the veneer of superior political virtue which Obama heretofore enjoyed. And if Reverend Wright did not do the trick, Obama’s decision to play racial politics seems to signal that he has abandoned the post-racial, post-partisan message which held such promise when the race began. This week doesn’t look like it’s getting off to a very promising start either for the Obama camp, kicking off with yet another unwanted endorsement - this time from North Korea.
Will these incidents have a lasting impact on the race? That depends on how effectively McCain’s team can make the point that these incidents relate to a larger picture – a candidate falsely wearing the clothes of a game-changing reformer who is merely a bare-knuckle pol, and a not very experienced or knowledgeable one at that.
If McCain can do that, and more importantly, if the media re-adjusts their outlook to cover Obama as they would any ordinary politician, the result may be significant and the race more competitive than only the most optimistic Republicans thought possible.