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Will the Election Be All About Obama?

By Steven Stark

One odd thing is already clear about the fall campaign: in it, one of the two major candidates, John McCain, is going to play only a minor role.

Sure, he'll occasionally get the spotlight, and there are things he can do to improve his chances marginally. But in the end, this election is about Barack Obama. The country wants a significant change in direction and Obama and the Democrats are the only ones who can credibly promise to deliver it. Thus, the results in November are going to come down to one question: can a significant portion of the electorate abide Barack Obama as its next president?

Right now, it's an open question. And for Obama to get the answer he wants, he's going to have to be another Ronald Reagan or another Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

There is always a threshold over which nominees must pass when the electorate decides whether a candidate can be trusted with the most powerful job in the world. For some, like General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, doing so is a cakewalk. For upstarts and more ideological purists, it's harder. Obama, of course, is the upstart of upstarts.

The good news for Obama is that most nominees do, in fact, successfully make the transition, especially when there is an overriding desire for change. John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992 all faced an initially skeptical electorate and, through favorable debate performances and constant exposure in the general-election campaign, gradually reassured the public that it had less to fear from the unknown than from the known.

Upon closer examination, however, the Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton comparisons may not offer much of a precedent for Obama. After all, each of the three was a centrist who ran at his challenger from the right as well as the left. Clinton and Carter came from the Southern GOP base and founded their appeal, in part, on their willingness to deviate sharply from party orthodoxy. JFK, too, was a hawk on military policy, running against Nixon from the right on the basis of a purported missile gap.

In contrast, as his Senate voting record and positions demonstrate, Obama is as liberal as they come, without any public record of straying from his party's left-leaning causes and constituencies. That means to win, he'll have to replicate the Reagan experience and basically lead an ideological revolution that will redraw the electoral map.

Risk assessment

It's a highly risky strategy, to say the least. It's risky, in part, because Americans -- even when they say they want change -- often don't endorse a sharp turn in direction. Yes, FDR's election in 1932 signaled a transformation, but the nation was in the midst of its worst depression. Reagan fomented a shift in the other direction, but the economy was in tatters and another nation held our citizens hostage. Are the Iraq War and current economic situation commensurate woes? If precedent is any guide, for the Democrats to win, the voters will have to think so.

Then there's Obama himself. FDR and Reagan were well-known figures on the national scene for years before they finally made it to the Oval Office; they each had a track record as governor of the nation's then-largest state (New York and California, respectively) that, in the end, reassured voters they could be trusted with the nation's highest office. Obama, by comparison, has a short résumé. Yes, experience can be overrated (as Hillary Clinton discovered) but if you're promising to drastically refashion our politics, it may be more of a prerequisite than usual.

Obama's uphill battle is made even trickier by the opponent he faces. Both FDR and Reagan won the office against damaged incumbents who, to a large number of Americans, had virtually disqualified themselves for a second term. McCain may not be a particularly vibrant candidate (especially if his Louisiana speech of this past week is any indication), but he's not the incumbent.

Those focusing on Obama's challenges so far have tended to dwell on the issue of race. But race isn't really the main issue. Anybody would find it difficult to do what Obama is trying to do. He has a hard sell ahead of him, and there have been far more instances when such "revolutionary" candidates (think William Jennings Bryan, Barry Goldwater, or George McGovern) have found the general-election mountain far too steep to climb. Support him or not, give Obama credit for this: he thinks big, which is why the upcoming campaign will focus almost exclusively on his ideas and his persona. If only by doing that, he's already changed our politics.

Boston Phoenix


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