People are starting to feel like Barack Obama has some explaining to do. Here’s how the Washington Post put it on Sunday:
While the candidates for the White House will spend the next week furiously raising money in advance of their next financial reporting deadline, the man who has raised the most is facing a different challenge: turning that money into a lead in the polls.
. . . some of the donors who have helped raise millions for [Barack] Obama are beginning to ask when the gap in polls between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will finally begin to narrow. The first votes in the primary season will be cast in less than four months, and the nomination could be wrapped up in a matter of weeks after that.
“People ask me all the time when I’m raising money: ‘What is going on with the polling?‘ ” one member of Obama’s national finance committee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the campaign’s restriction on committee members speaking to the news media. “He drives out great crowds wherever he goes, but everyone still wonders a little bit if that’s going to turn into votes.”
The spin doctors, of course, have their optimistic opinions:
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe contended that the race should be viewed through the early crucible of Iowa, which remains almost certain to have the first say in the nomination contest despite a shifting campaign calendar.
“I think Iowa is in a different level of engagement than any other state in the country, and what you see there is a very tight three-way contest” among Obama, Clinton and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), Plouffe said in an interview. “It’s the only place we’ve advertised in and the place Senator Obama has spent most of his time.”
Well, it certainly can’t be a good sign, then, Plouffe-boy, that your guy’s poll numbers in Iowa have been stagnant all month at barely 20 percent, can it? Even worse, the media vultures are beginning to circle, as Noam Scheiber of the New Republic wrote early this morning:
Prior to the debate, the cable pundits were practically giddy with anticipation of a looming Obama offensive. Chris Matthews went on about how Obama needed to wag his finger at Clinton and indict her over the war, like a prosecutor in the Scott Turow movie Presumed Innocent. Obama’s performance tonight seemed like a direct response to these expectations. There was almost an element of defiance in his low-key performance, as though he were saying: “This is the strategy I’m going with, so lay off.” His aides later underscored this impression.
Obama’s problem is that he’s staked his campaign on a personal image of being an uplifting, bipartisan uniter, as outlined exhaustively in a New York Times profile of Obama campaign guru David Axelrod in April. Unfortunately, that role doesn’t suit itself to battling one’s way out of a deficit in the polls — and, even worse, it’s quite likely not what Democratic or even independent voters are looking for in 2008.
Axelrod is credited in that NYT profile as being ahead of the curve politically (“So many consultants are fighting the last war, but David is fighting the next one”), but ironically seeking to duplicate Dubya’s personality-over-policy appeal even while claiming to recognize that “every election is a reaction to the last president.”
If the 2008 election is going to be a reaction to the Shrub-in-Chief, then the lesson Team Obama should learn is that policies matter. We’ve tried the likable-guy approach, and it got the country stuck in the ditch in any number of painful ways. So the candidate people are likely to vote for is the one who gives the best sense of being ready to roll up their sleeves and start digging us out.
And to a country that feels stuck in a ditch, the guy in the impeccably clean shirt telling us that the real solution is to “redefine the relationship between your car and the road” probably isn’t going to get a great reception.
(Photo from last night’s debate via the Associated Press.)