Obama pips McCain on perception front

Business Times - 12 Jun 2008

Most polls show that American voters believe the Democratic candidate will be more effective in managing economic policies


AS THE US presidential campaign enters its final and crucial six-month round, the conventional wisdom is that the electoral strengths of Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate, lie in his relative youth (46), personal charisma and energy, and his image as an agent of 'change'.

Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, is disadvantaged in the race because of his age (72), his poor oratorical skills, his disappointing performance as a campaigner, and his identification with the failed domestic and foreign policies of President George W Bush and the political status-quo in Washington.

Mr Obama's strengths and Mr McCain's weaknesses were clearly evident last week when Mr Obama claimed the Democratic presidential nomination before close to 35,000 supporters in St Paul, Minnesota in an event that had the feel of a rock concert. As he was getting ready to speak, Mr Obama and his wife, Michelle, banged their fists together, injecting a 'cool' element into the historic event that seemed to vibrate with energy and enthusiasm.

The McCain campaign had hoped to pre-empt the Obama event by having the Republican candidate deliver a speech before a group of supporters in Louisiana.

'There's no energy here', is the way CBS News analyst Jeff Greenfield described Mr McCain's performance. There was no crowd behind him the way there was with Mr Obama. A slogan, 'A Leader You Can Believe In' was designed to say 'I'm the Commander-in-Chief and Obama's credentials are weak'. But you could barely read the slogan because Mr McCain was blocking it.

If you were 'the oldest candidate ever to run for president and you want to communicate a sense of dynamism, you want to surround yourself with energy, and that is not what happened in McCain's event last night', concluded Mr Greenfield.

It's difficult to see how Mr McCain and his advisers are going to overcome the very wide youth/energy/cool gap between their man and Mr Obama. They are hoping that if both men appear together to debate in smaller and less choreographed town-hall meetings, the Republican senator, who is a Vietnam War veteran and has the aura of an elder statesman, could project his strengths and experience in the national security arena vis-a-vis Mr Obama, the new kid on the block.

The problem is that by sharing a public forum with Mr Obama and debating the issues with him, Mr Obama would be perceived as someone who can take on Mr McCain and who can succeed in narrowing his experience/national security gap with the Republican candidate. In a way, public debates could prove to be a lose-lose proposition for Mr McCain.

Moreover, when it comes to the policy issues themselves, there is no indication that Mr McCain is gaining any ground from what he describes as the 'success' to the US military surge in Iraq while portraying Mr Oba ma as a 'defeatist' who wants to 'cut and run' from Iraq.

This kind of Churchillian posturing doesn't seem to be having much impact on the American public, which notwithstanding the short-term improvement in the security in Baghdad and a few other cities, continues to regard the Iraq War as a costly mistake and wants to see the next president drawing up a plan for a gradual withdrawal of US troops from Iraq - a view that seems to be in line with the agenda being presented by Mr Obama.

Some political pundits argue that Mr Obama's electoral advantages would be neutralised by his main personal 'weakness' - his race, with many white voters still resisting the idea of voting for a black man. At the same time, unlike during the Vietnam War when young Americans from all walks of life were drafted into military service, most Americans don't have relatives or friends in the all-volunteer armed forces, which explains why the mess and bloodshed in Iraq is not their top concern in the elections this year.

But even if one tries to dismiss the personal strengths of Mr Obama as the youthful and charismatic 'Change Candidate' and to put the Iraq War - and by extension the entire neoconservative-driven foreign policy mess - on the campaign's backburner, what could eventually determine the outcome of the race in Mr Obama's favour is: the economy, stupid!

The latest Pew Research Centre poll shows that 88 per cent of voters ranked the economy as the No 1 issue that was 'very important' to their vote in November (only 72 per cent gave the Iraq war the same weight). The same poll also answered the question of whether the next president should focus more on domestic or foreign policy - 66 per cent stressed domestic and only 22 per cent preferred foreign.

Indeed, all public opinion polls make it clear that most Americans are distressed, if not panicked, over their growing economic woes as each day brings fresh bad news about rising energy and food prices, more unemployment, housing foreclosures and personal bankruptcies. Hence, in the same week that they were told that for the first time the US was posting a fifth straight month of job decline, Americans were also starting to pay at least US$4 a gallon for gas which could rise to US$4.50 by the July 4 holiday.

What could clearly become a long and painful economic recession is hurting blue-collar workers especially and residents of rural areas who are heavily dependent on trucks and other vehicles in their work that usually include long commutes between home and work.

These low-middle class Americans are the kind of constituency that both Mr Obama and Mr McCain need in their columns if they want to win in big electoral states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan and other regions with large agricultural and manufacturing sectors in the Midwest and the South that have been hit by the economic downturn.

Mr Obama, who is campaigning this week in several battleground states including Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida as part of a 17-day 'Change that works for you' economic tour, wants to highlight a stark contrast between his economic policies and those of Mr McCain whom he portrays as someone who has supported Mr Bush's failed economic agenda and who will continue pursuing the same policies if he is elected president in November.

Hence, in a speech in North Carolina on Monday, Mr Obama described Mr McCain's economic agenda as 'a full-throated endorsement of George Bush's policies' and he stressed his commitment to help Americans who are suffering because of the economic recession.

Among other things, the Democratic candidate proposed a US$50 billion package of fiscal stimulus, an expansion in unemployment benefits and the creation of a US$10 billion fund to assist those who could lose their homes as a result of the housing crisis. And he seemed to be integrating these and other ideas into a wider populist message, as he pledged to 'get tough' with predatory mortgage lenders.

'The principle is simple,' he said. 'If the government can bail out investment banks on Wall Street, we can extend a hand to folks who are struggling on Main Street.'

Mr McCain's Republican supporters are trying to depict Mr Obama as a big government liberal who wants to raise taxes and impose more government regulations on the American people and go back to what the Republicans are describing as the 'failed policies of the 60s and 70s'.

The Democrats are countering by stressing that they actually want to return to the successful economic policies of the 90s - when a Democrat was occupying the White House.

Most polls suggest that Mr Obama's economic message is more popular among American voters who also believe that the Democratic candidate will be more effective in managing economic policies.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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