August 07, 2008

Can Obama be Ordinary Enough to be President?

After the American Century
As the Olympics are about to begin, the presidential campaign has reached a point of quite temporary unimportance for the media. It is an appropriate moment to recall the amazing journey the American political system has made since early January. Back before the Iowa caucuses, few thought McCain had a chance for the Republican nomination, and Obama was an interesting outsider for the Democrats. Who could have predicted that Hillary would so mismange her finances and her campaign? Who thought Giuliani would fall so flat on his face? Who imagined that the Democrats would not reach a decision until June?

In these nearly eight months, Obama has gone from being an outsider to the favorite to win, and McCain has resurrected himself to a convincing foe. On the op-ed pages some columnists have been asking why Obama has so small a lead in the polls, given the abysmal ratings that Bush has in his last year as President. Surely, many are saying, Obama ought to have more than just a few points advantage. Such comments betray the mentality of the educated experts who live inside the Washington Beltway or in New York. The idea that a young, Black politician "ought" to have a sizeable lead over a more experienced white one suggests some commentators have lost track of the American people.

Furthermore, although McCain may be taking on the Bush policies and negative Bush campaign tactics, he has managed to preserve something of the image of a straight-talking maverick. He is presenting himself as the Republican non-Bush. To the extent that he can keep foreign policy and terror at the center of the campaign, he becomes stronger. Strangely, he would likely benefit were a major terror attack to occur before election day. McCain also will pass the "beer" test with white, male voters, who probably imagine themselves as being more comfortable having a brew with him down at the local saloon. Bush won the "beer" test against both Gore and Kerry.

With this in mind, probably the best thing that Obama can do to win over skeptical voters is appear to be more approachable, more average, more "just folks." Back in 1992 Bill Clinton went on a TV show and played the sax, which proved popular. To Europeans, such actions seem strange, because they do not expect politicians to reveal so much of their private lives. But Americans like politicians who have nicknames. It was not James, but Jimmy Carter, not John but Jack Kennedy, not Abraham but Abe Lincoln, and so on, at least back to the election of 1824. That was when "Old Hickory" - Andy Jackson - beat that Bostonian stuffed-shirt abolitionist aristocrat John Quincy Adams.

In other words, the average American needs to feel comfortable, on an imaginary first-name basis with the candidate, to vote for him. For Obama to win big, he will need to supplement his inspirational rhetoric with some down-to-earth qualities. He already has this rapport with the more literate minority who have read his two best-selling books. In contrast, McCain has more of this "average Joe" feeling, and his problem is the opposite - to find a loftier rhetorical register in at least a few of his speeches.

Politicians win the essential middle ground in the United States not through ideology, not through rhetoric, but through a direct appeal to the ordinary citizen. In short, as Lord Bryce realized long ago, Americans look not for extraordinary but ordinary people to lead them. Whatever his many failings, Bush was the ordinary man, the merely average student from nowhere important in Texas. Not a highbrow, he did not stress his Yale pedigree. For crucial swing voters, the often unvoiced question will be: Is Obama ordinary enough to be President?