An Audacious President-Elect
Once upon a time, the thought of Barack Obama becoming president was downright audacious.
In the early days of his campaign, Obama had to persuade people that casting a vote for him was not a waste of time, a sad joke or a hopeless cause.
When I interviewed him just a few days before he announced for the presidency in February 2007, I asked him if he was on some kind of "crusade."
He sat up in the chair where he had been with his chin cupped in his left hand, his arm resting on the arm of the chair and even dropped a "g" to make his point more forceful.
"No, no, no," he said. "If I am runnin' for president, it is not symbolic. It's to win. But it's also to transform the country."
Barack Obama won Tuesday night. The transformation of the country we'll see about.
But Obama's victory certainly says a great deal about how the right person with the right message at the right time can move very far and very fast in this country, no matter what the barriers.
When Barack Obama began his campaign, he was 43, a U.S. senator for barely two years, and for all the talk about his keynote speech — titled "The Audacity of Hope" — at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, neither ABC, CBS nor NBC had carried it live.
In other words, when he started on his path to the presidency, Barack Obama was a strange name, not a household name.
Hillary Clinton was far better known and far ahead in the polls. And the playing field was not exactly level. In all of U.S. history there have been only two elected black governors since Reconstruction and only two elected black senators in addition to Obama.
Even his closest advisers, those who believed he eventually could get to the White House, were not pushing him into a risky run. "Anyone who knows presidential campaigns has to be reticent to urge someone to run," David Axelrod, his senior strategist, said. "As a friend, I wanted him to make a decision he was comfortable with and not regret after a year or 18 months."
But Obama had one huge thing going for him: He was an inspirational messenger with a message that was pitch-perfect for his time: change. Every poll showed that a large majority of Americans believed the country was on the wrong track. (The latest Gallup poll, completed Monday, shows that an incredible 86 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the current state of the nation.)
So could a candidate who ran on a message of change, a message of turning the page, a message of not being associated with the old, failed ways of Washington, beat far more experienced candidates and, in fact, turn their experience against them?
Could be. "The jury was out as to whether we could get together a credible campaign," David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said. "We had the audacity to run."
But it was an audacity coupled with something else. "I have never seen a Democratic campaign more disciplined than this one," Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, whose own presidential campaign in 2004 was famously chaotic, said Tuesday night.
This year, the Democratic nominee didn't become known as "No Drama" Obama for nothing. "One of his strengths is he is never too high and never too low," Axelrod once told me. "He doesn't pump his fists in the air and whoop and holler when things go well, and he and doesn't holler when they don't."
Obama made his final decision in the first week of January 2007. "Let's put our chips in the middle of the table and see how we do," Obama told his staff.
He did pretty darn well. But it was no sure thing. Wresting the nomination away from Hillary Clinton was no walk in the park. Obama beat her by running better and smarter, and recognizing that if he didn't win the first contest — Iowa — his campaign would be finished. So he organized Iowa like it never had been organized before, and he won. He lost to Clinton five days later in New Hampshire, and that surprised him, but he did not get rattled. Obama settled into a prolonged battle, which some thought would leave the party split, but instead left Obama's campaign tested and honed.
The primaries were practice for the general, and Obama's goal remained the same: "to fundamentally alter the electorate" by reaching out to new voters, younger voters and voters who had given up on the process.
And one of the first decisions Obama made after wrapping up the nomination proved pivotal. Obama turned down federal funding for his general election run, which left him free to raise more than $650 million.
John McCain, who accepted federal funding, was limited to $85 million. And even though that amount was supplemented by spending by the Republican National Committee, McCain was at a devastating money disadvantage.
McCain wrapped up his nomination early in a weak field and did not build the national organization he needed for the general election. Further, he failed to build upon or even establish those qualities that had made him appealing in 2000: being a maverick, authentic and not excessively partisan.
The stock market collapse certainly helped crush McCain's chances, and for two reasons: Not only did the nosedive belie the Republican claim that their administrations were good stewards of the economy, but it also made wonkiness seem less toxic and more appealing.
Wonkiness hurt previous Democratic nominees like Al Gore, John Kerry and Mike Dukakis. The Democrats always seemed to field "smarty-pants" candidates — candidates who knew everything except how to relate to ordinary people. And Republicans could field candidates who were not exactly intellectual powerhouses — George W. Bush comes to mind — and their likability would see them through.
But a global economic meltdown — plus a shooting war in two countries — helped make superior knowledge seem like a good idea, and the ticket of Obama and Joe Biden seemed smarter than McCain and Sarah Palin.
Could McCain still have won by doing things differently? It is impossible to know, but at least two things will be argued about for a long time:
First, McCain could have picked a different running mate. Though Palin was certainly a shot of adrenalin into the Republican National Convention, nobody was looking very far down the road. By picking Palin, McCain surrendered his chief argument to voters: that he was a "steady hand on the tiller" and, therefore, a safer choice than Obama.
McCain might be a steady hand, but Palin clearly was not, and when you are a 72-year-old nominee, voters are going to look at your running mate pretty closely. If McCain had selected former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist or even Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, he might he have done better.
Second, McCain could have voted against the Wall Street bailout plan. While the plan looked necessary at the time (and may have been), it also proved very unpopular with Republicans who didn't like the idea of government bailouts and Democrats who didn't want to reward Wall Street financiers.
Stuart Stevens, a well-known Republican consultant and writer who was an unpaid consultant to the McCain campaign before joining the Romney campaign, thinks opposing the bailout might have given McCain an advantage.
"When Obama asked how McCain was any different than President Bush, McCain could have replied, 'I don't want to bail out Wall Street!'" Stevens said.
It would have been risky. There could have been an even larger stock market crash without the bailout, but politically it might have given McCain a chance to show he was a genuine maverick.
There are other things McCain could have done differently, such as deciding on one, clear message and sticking with it, but in reality it might not have made much difference. Obama was not only a good campaigner, with a good message and a good staff, he had a good story. And you can never underestimate the power of a good story in American politics.
True, McCain had a good story, too: His five and a half years of captivity during the Vietnam War and his bravery throughout that ordeal was dramatic. But by 2008, that story was well known and seemed long ago and far away.
Obama's story had a different kind of drama: He was the son of a single, white teenage mother and a black father he met only once when he was 10 years old, and he grew up to become a serious candidate for president. In a line he would make famous in his TV ads and speeches, Obama would describe how his mother would wake him up at 4:30 in the morning to study his lessons, "and if I grumbled, she'd say, 'Well, this is no picnic for me either, buster.'"
And when Obama told that story, he didn't sound scary or like an "other." He didn't sound like a pal of domestic terrorists or a socialist. He seemed like an American success story, a man who had climbed high by working hard. A man whose election could demonstrate the hope that America offers.
Obama's victory does not signal a shift in ideology in this country. It signals that the American public has grown weary of ideologies.
Barack Obama made people feel good by voting for him. And that is hard to beat in America.
Is the Republican Party finished? No, and even though it will go through the typical agonizing post-train wreck reappraisals, the party's remedy might be far simpler than now appears.
"We are a very personality-driven country," Stuart Stevens said. "Look at this race: Obama, Clinton, McCain. The Republicans are just one compelling leader away from being back in the game."
But Obama has won the game for now. And he — and the country — are allowed to feel good about that.
"Let's prove to our children that they really can reach for their dreams," Obama's wife, Michelle, once said at a rally. "Let's show them that America is ready for Barack Obama."
Ready or not, here he comes.
To find out more about Roger Simon, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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