Barack Obama is sitting in the catbird seat. The economy has tanked, the incumbent George W. Bush is almost as unpopular as Congress, and the MSM is cheering him on and avoiding scrutiny of troubling facts (e.g. his association with ACORN and Bill Ayers). With three weeks to go he has got this in the bag, right?
Well, not quite. He has one more debate to go, a newly energized McCain ad campaign attacking his association with Ayers (and other questionable characters) and a surprisingly large number of voters still don’t think he is prepared to be president. As Karl Rove pointed out, “[o]f recent candidates, only Michael Dukakis in 1988 has had a larger percentage of voters tell pollsters they believe he lacks the necessary qualifications to be president.” Moreover, his national lead hovers in the mid-single digits and many swing states remain within the margin of error. (Gallup’s Sunday poll showed a split of just 50-46% among likely voters.)
So what must he do in the final weeks to secure his win?
Now some might question why he has to do anything, certainly anything different in the final weeks of the campaign. It is tempting to run out the clock and ignore any incoming attacks from the McCain campaign. But frankly, polling has been less than dependable in this election cycle. Even if one doesn’t believe the “Bradley effect” is still a factor, Obama’s most fervent supporters are the least reliable voters (e.g. college students). So now is a good time to expand his appeal to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.
First, in the debate he would do well to spell out an economic recovery plan aimed squarely at the middle class. His plans for health care reform and raising taxes on the rich don’t have much to do with the bulk of voters who want to know how they are going to keep their jobs and homes. He needs to explain precisely how much tax relief is going to the middle class and what he’ll do for the 40% of Americans paying no income tax. And what is he going to do about job creation and maintaining investment in the U.S.? To convince voters wary of a tax and spend Democrat he would do well to show he understands that the private sector needs a boost to climb out of the recession.
Second, he was asked about his Treasury Secretary in the last debate and punted. It might not be such a bad idea to name someone, maybe Robert Rubin, who would have instant credibility and further reassure the markets. The news might even result in a stock market bounce — proving his point that a new administration would immediately provide exactly what is missing: confidence.
And likewise on the foreign policy: a Colin Powell or a Dennis Ross offered up as Secretary of State would convince many voters, even moderate Republicans, that his administration would not be a radical, dovish experiment in New Age diplomacy (and if he plans on putting Madeline Albright, or even worse, Tony Lake in the job he should, suffice it to say, keep it to himself. Neither has shown capable of understanding let alone confronting dangerous characters and the specter of either is likely to send chills up the spine of those already concerned about a weak-kneed national security apparatus under Obama.) He would do well to stop talking about the merits of discussion with Ahmadinejad and stress his determination to increase the size of the military, apply what we learned in Iraq to Afghanistan and work with allies to check further Russian aggression.
Third, he should have a simple, direct response — maybe even an apology — regarding the extent and circumstances of his association with the terrorist couple Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. Even voters who think this is ancient history would be reassured if he and his campaign didn’t appear so shifty on the association. And the Obama team would do well to stop denying obvious facts, such as Obama’s association with ACORN, which are a matter of public record. Obfuscating and flat-out lying only provoke more inquiry and more suspicion. And what explanation should he give? Hopefully one that meshes with available facts and which satisfies voters that he is not an ethical dunce.
Fourth, Obama needs to demonstrate in tone and rhetoric that he understands the middle class, more so than the newest populist on the block Sarah Palin. In short, he would do well to dispel the notion (made more acute by Bittergate) that he looks down on rural and small town Americans. He should stop referring to the middle class as “they.” In the debate he should take a page from Ronald Reagan and give a shout out to some guests — ordinary working Americans whose stories he knows and who affected his view of the country. And again, some specific examples of how a family in Iowa or Missouri might benefit from his policy agenda would help bring his rather abstract, vague promises of “change” down to earth.
Finally, some voters are nervous about an all-Democratic government with Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid-Barack Obama ushering in a new Left-leaning agenda. Without disappointing the Democratic interest groups that are supporting his candidacy, he would do well to put some distance between himself and Congressional Democrats. Take a whack at them for refusing to investigate malfeasance at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Tell voters that unlike George W. Bush he’ll have the veto ready if they lard up spending bills. Make clear the nutty plans to set up war crimes trials are off the table.
Obama is in an enviable position, but sitting on his lead is a bad strategy. Relying on voters’ disgust with the Bush administration may be a mistake since everyone in America understands Bush is leaving office. The question is: who should follow?
Many voters will take one more look at the candidates. When they do, Obama wants to make sure they see the face of moderation — a Democrat who understands it is 2008 and not 1968, who does not distain their values and who doesn’t misinterpret utter frustration with the Bush administration as a mandate for a radical agenda. If he can do that, he will not just have a victory, but the broad support he will need to govern in tough times.