That’s the question many voters will be asking themselves over the next three months. How they answer it will probably decide who takes the oath in January.
Barack Obama’s spectacular world tour – ecstatic crowds, brilliant visuals, a virtual endorsement from the French president – has convinced the infatuated intelligentsia that balloting is a mere formality. But don’t be fooled. This election is far from over. And in his cooler moments, Obama is a shrewd politician who knows that those 200,000 adoring Berliners don’t vote in Dayton or Daytona.
“This is going to be a close election for a long time,” he told a fundraiser this week, “because I’m new on the national scene and some people sort of like what they see but they’re still unsure.”
They sure are unsure. The Web site RealClearPolitics, which averages all national polls, puts Obama’s lead at a mere 2.6 points, 46.3 per cent to John McCain’s 43.7 percent. And the key states that have decided the last two elections are even closer: In Ohio, Obama’s margin is 1.5 percent; Florida is dead even; and McCain leads in Missouri by 2.5 points.
A look inside those numbers shows why voters are “still unsure” about the first-term senator from Illinois, and their doubts start with a single word: experience.
During the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton convinced 18 million voters to support her because she was “ready on day one” to become president. It wasn’t enough, because, in many states, his “change” message trumped her “ready” mantra. But those were Democratic primary voters.
When the ABC/Washington Post survey asked a national sample to choose between “strength and experience” or “new direction and new ideas,” respondents split right down the middle.
The latest Wall Street Journal poll sends even stronger warning signals to the Obama camp. As commander in chief, voters preferred McCain by 53 percent to 25 percent; and they rated Obama the “riskier choice” by 20 points. President Bush won a second term in part because he convinced enough voters, particularly mothers of small children, that in a dangerous world, he offered a more secure option than John Kerry. And that pattern is showing up again.
Democrats cannot win the White House without a strong majority among female voters, and Obama’s 14-point advantage among all women (according to a recent Pew poll) resembles Bill Clinton’s 16-point margin in 1996. But among married women, Obama’s edge shrinks to 4 points.
Obama is a far more compelling and magnetic force than his rival. But McCain cuts a more comfortable and reassuring figure. As Peter Hart, a Democrat who conducts the Wall Street Journal poll with Republican Neil Newhouse, puts it: “Voters want to answer a simple question: Is Barack Obama safe?”
The answer to that question draws on more evidence than years served, jobs held and positions taken. Voters want to know about a candidate’s character, judgment and temperament. They want to sense his scars and his seasoning. And they learn these things through narrative, the stories leaders tell about their lives and troubles.
In 1992, Clinton’s handlers were appalled to discover that he was seen as a child of privilege, a graduate of Oxford and Yale. That’s when they trotted out “The Boy From Hope,” raised by a single mom after his father died before he was born.
Obama, the superstar Harvard law grad, is facing a similar problem, with voters thinking he’s lived a “charmed existence,” according to his campaign manager, David Plouffe. His answer is the same as Clinton’s: campaign ads that stress his own lack of a father and his hardworking Kansas grandparents. Call it the “Back to Barry” tour, the nickname he had as a boy.
Those ads highlight the final point: To many Americans, Obama is still a stranger, an exotic and mysterious stranger with an odd name, a dark face, a weird pastor, a cheeky wife and a brief past. “This is a big leap for people,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “I don’t look like previous commanders in chief. I’ve been on the national scene a relatively short time.”
One measure of that leap: Pew reports that 22 percent of all voters think Obama is a Muslim or are confused about his religion; only 57 percent correctly identify him as a Christian. And among independents who don’t know his true faith, only one-third support him, while half back McCain.
So, in November, will Americans decide Obama is “one of us”? We don’t know yet.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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