Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Dangerous Moment for Barack Obama

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 580

One of the hallmark characteristics of the political blogosphere is the impulse to seize upon a story, issue or incident perceived to have been un-reported, under-reported or mis-reported by the "mainstream media" and then call the journalistic world to account for the oversight. Given the state of traditional print and electronic media and the inherent conflict of interest posed by the relationship between news organizations and their corporate parents and sponsors, this is quite often justified, and sometimes even effective in advancing the public interest.

What sometimes gets overlooked, however, is how the blogosphere can pass up stories of significant political interest simply because the mainstream media got there first. A case in point on the Democratic side here in Iowa: the recent controversy surrounding the Obama campaign's release of a memo criticizing ties between Hillary Clinton and India.

[If you've been on a fishing trip or otherwise out of touch with events the past day or two, you may want to click here to brief yourself about this before reading on.]

This isn't the first dust-up between the two presumed front-runners for the Democratic nomination for president. There was the widely-seen "1984" attack ad created by a media consultant with connections to the Obama campaign, and the spat about David Geffen and Hollywood money before that.

Both of those incidents were glancing blows for Obama, as they, at worst, involved him indirectly. This latest incident, however, occurred under official campaign cover, and goes directly back to the campaign's opposition research staff, and, ultimately, Barack Obama himself. Greatly to his credit, Senator Obama has acknowledged as much, and apologized for the memo and its negative connotations toward Americans originally from India or of Indian descent:

"'It was a screw-up on the part of our research team. It wasn't anything I had seen or my senior staff had seen...I thought it was stupid and caustic and not only didn't reflect my view of the complicated issue of outsourcing ... it also didn't reflect the fact that I have longstanding support and friendships within the Indian-American community.

'I take responsibility for it, as does our campaign. And we quickly apologized and are communicating that in various circles around the country.'"

There is, at this point, no reason to believe this was anything other than the mistake Obama says it was. Campaigns, staff and candidates all make mistakes, and mistakes, if quickly acknowledged and responsibly addressed, tend to rapidly fade from public attention, partly because voters understand that this could happen to anybody.

But it may prove to be different for Barack Obama in this campaign.

Stirring rhetoric about high public purpose is chiefly what Barack Obama is known for in the public mind. There's no need to re-run quotes from Senator Obama about his desire to raise the level of public discourse in the United States and turn away from the rancor and bitterness that has characterized politics in this country for far too long; the most cursory browse of Obama's campaign website drives home the overriding theme that he is a candidate above the cut and thrust the public has come, for better or worse, to expect from its politics and its leaders. Nor, in my view, is there anything about the way Obama has handled this particular incident that would credibly call his sincerity about that into question.

The problem for Barack Obama arises when that message runs up against the realities of what it takes to prevail in a long and brutal electoral process and end up in the White House. The idealism that attracts supporters to Obama's campaign can stand only so many slips of the kind we've seen this week before doubts start taking root.

As I've had occasion to comment before about Barack Obama, after attending one of his rallies:
"If you believe that the key to success for Obama rests in continuing to show up in front of throngs of curious voters and adulatory supporters, to keep building name recognition and reinforce his image as a dynamic and eloquent campaigner, then he did very well. If you believe that Obama needs to supplement his established image by demonstrating greater passion for solutions and for the prospect of becoming President in order to implement those solutions, he did less well. And if you believe that evidence of potential Presidential leadership ability based on past or current performance is what’s needed to ultimately elevate Barack Obama from political celebrity into the realm of electoral inevitability, then the candidate still has a long road ahead of him.

In other words, the higher your expectations for this event, the less satisfying the result is likely to have been. This is no condemnation of Barack Obama or his campaign. If anything, it is confirmation that a first-time candidate for president with less than three years tenure in national office might benefit from taking his initial steps in smaller gatherings, with less media and public attention, to hone his pitch, and frankly, allow himself the freedom to make mistakes in settings that won’t be instantly televised and webcast around the world.

There’s no denying that a campaign trying to build momentum in counterweight to the aura of inevitability that the Clinton campaign is working hard to create might find taking a small step out of the limelight for a period of time to be painful. But all candidates make mistakes, all campaigns need to establish their rhythm, and Barack Obama is no exception. The smart thing would be to recognize this, understand that we’re still nearly a year out from the caucus, and leverage this small window of opportunity to tune up the campaign and the candidate in preparation for the rigors to come."

Unfortunately for Barack Obama, the time when he might have been able to tune up his campaign out of the full glare of media scrutiny has passed. From here on through the end of the campaign, every misstep becomes a test of whether the idealism Obama espouses can co-exist alongside the sometimes ugly realities of presidential politics. The way in which that plays out will prove decisive in determining the success or failure of the Obama campaign.


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