Barack in a Box

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

The season now ending may not have been the summer of Barack Obama’s discontent, but no one—least of all the candidate himself—is likely to remember it as his summer of love, either. At the end of June, Obama was bathed in a chorus of hosannas over his fund-raising prowess, his grassroots appeal, his message of reform. Two months later, he is engulfed in a blaring cacophony of criticism over…well, pretty much everything. His alleged foreign-policy gaffes. His supposedly conciliatory comments about the role of lobbyists. And, of course, his purported insufficiency of experience to hold the highest office in the land. When ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked at the recent Democratic debate in Iowa whether Obama is “ready” only one of his fellow White House wannabes rose to defend him: Mike Gravel. (Gee, thanks.)

As Hillary Clinton would tell you, being pounded like a piñata can be a signifier of stature. But it can also be an indication that the sharks smell blood in the water—and this is the case with Obama. After a white-hot start seven months ago, the campaign of the junior Illinois senator seems palpably to have stalled. Indeed, in Democratic circles, the meme is spreading that he may turn out to be the Bill Bradley of 2008: a cerebral, somewhat standoffish candidate with an appeal to upscale, liberal voters (and the capacity to get them to open their checkbooks) whose star burned brightly for a while but then dimmed. Thus are Obama’s rivals, in anticipation of his fall, jostling to position themselves as the next-most-plausible alternative to Clinton.

This meme may prove one day to have been prescient. But, at the moment, it strikes me as premature. From the start of his bid, Obama has styled himself an agent of change, and all the available evidence suggests that voters still consider him the most credible aspirant to that role. The questions facing him have always been the same: Can he fashion a coherent vision of what the change he’s promising would look like? And can he convince voters that transformative capacity trumps experience? While it’s fair to say that Obama has failed to answer either in the affirmative, it’s also true that he’s barely begun to try—and that the opportunity to do so remains in front of him.

The doubts about Obama’s viability in the Democratic race revolve primarily around two phenomena. The first is the gap between him and Clinton in the national polls, which has widened from as little as eight percentage points to closer to twenty. The second is the sense that, at age 46 and in just his third year in the Senate, he may be too untested to be commander-in-chief. Obama is acutely aware of this vulnerability. “People have to feel comfortable that, ‘You know what? This guy can handle the job,’” he told the Associated Press. “It’s a stretch for them because I haven’t been on the national scene for long and haven’t gone through the conventional paths that we traditionally draw for our presidents.”

On the face of it, Obama has elongated that stretch with some of his recent statements (or stumbles, depending on your point of view) on foreign policy: about his willingness to meet with the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez; his plans to order military strikes on Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan if the country’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, refused to do anything to curtail the resurgence of the Taliban there; and his ruling out of the use of nuclear weapons in such attacks.

Although Joe Biden and Chris Dodd have certainly made hay with such remarks, no one has seized on them more ruthlessly, or effectively, than Clinton has. Across the board, in fact, her campaign has been nothing short of masterful in defanging the challenge posed by Obama to her candidacy, painting him as a national-security naïf while adroitly shifting the terms of the debate away from her area of greatest weakness—her vote to authorize the Iraq war, which Obama opposed from the outset—to which of them is best qualified to bring the conflict to an end.

The effect on the Clinton-Obama dynamic has been appreciable. According to a recent CBS News poll, fully 82 percent of Democrats now say she has “the right kind of experience to be a good president”—compared to just 41 percent who say the same about him. And while Democrats on average still find Obama more likable than they do Clinton, she leads him by sixteen points on the question of electability.

“Look, I find it hard to get behind her. She’s the worst of both worlds: too conventional and too divisive at the same time,” says a former Clinton White House official uncommitted to any candidate. “But Obama has been a disappointment. Playing the same card over and over, that he was against the war from the beginning, just is not enough. And it’s not just on foreign policy. Across the board, his campaign has been way too cautious, way too safe. I find myself wanting to support him, but there’s not enough there.”

Obama’s strategists, naturally, hear this kind of stuff all the time. Their response, though they would never say so on the record, is that the campaign is pacing itself to avoid peaking too early à la Bradley and Howard Dean. That the first six months were all about fund-raising, about building an organization, about introducing a candidate—who, despite his cover-boy celebrity, is still a largely unknown commodity—to voters in the early primary and caucus states. That they’re merely keeping their powder dry until the contest heats up in earnest in the fall.

Spin? Maybe. Or maybe not, for the argument exhibits a certain straightforward logic. For all the hubbub that the campaign has generated, the truth is that most people (sane creatures that they are) have yet to start paying close attention, let alone to make up their minds. The history of primary contests is replete with dramatic swings right up through the final days; the collapse of Dean and the ascent of John Kerry in Iowa in 2004 is but one example. David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said earlier this year that Clinton, “the quasi-incumbent…will and should lead just about every national poll from now until the Iowa caucuses.” The trick for Obama, then, is to remain within striking distance in the early primary states—which, so far, he has done.

But that’s only half the challenge. More important is that Obama put some meat on the bones of his lofty rhetoric of change. The candidate has pointed to four areas of particular emphasis: health care, energy policy, education, and national security. In these areas, Obama has already offered more-specific plans than Clinton has. And he has shown a greater (though still not great enough) willingness to tackle entrenched interests. He has gone to Detroit and chastised the auto industry for its record on fuel economy. He has stuck a toe in the water of getting crosswise with the teachers’ unions with his call for merit pay. Even his so-called gaffes on foreign policy have demonstrated an instinct to reject the hoary shibboleths that stifle fresh thinking—and have been consistent with his theme of transfiguring the culture of the capital.

Yet even some of Obama’s allies worry that he will not go far enough. “I’m not concerned about what’s happened this summer,” says one confidant of his. “I like where we’re positioned in the race. But we need to be really bold this fall, and my fear is that we’ll either not be bold enough or be bold on the wrong things. In any campaign, there are always forces pushing you to hedge. We’re not immune to that, but unless we resist it, Barack doesn’t have a chance.”

If excessive caution and calculation do keep Obama from giving Clinton a run for her money, the irony will, of course, be thick—since caution and calculation are the vices that many critics see as her potential undoing. For nine months, Obama has studiously shied away from being too hot a candidate, from being too exciting, from being too inspirational. He has attempted to tone himself down in his quest to appear presidential. But the season of understatement is almost over. In a careful war, Hillary wins.

Obama has lately taken to the argument that what he lacks in Washington experience he makes up for in good judgment. And good judgment now means taking risks both substantive and stylistic. It means a plan on the environment, say, that includes a carbon tax or a gas tax. And it means finding a way to inhabit the hopes many had for him, that he was someone, finally, who could change politics.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Barack in a Box