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.