US voters still unsure if they know enough about Obama

Business Times - 01 Aug 2008

THE country was in a bad mood. America had suffered major diplomatic and military setbacks in the Middle East. Oil prices were rising to ever new heights. A nasty mix of economic slowdown and inflationary pressures were creating a sense of economic anxiety among the American people, a majority of whom were telling pollsters that they are very worried about the future of their nation. And a relatively unknown politician - but one with a lot of charm and charisma - was running for the White House against a former naval officer with more experience in national politics and foreign policy.

It all sounds very much like the political and economic reality of Summer 2008 - a sense of gloom and doom among the American people against the backdrop of a military quagmire in the Persian Gulf, skyrocketing energy prices, and a recession coupled with inflation, not to mention the crises in the financial and housing crises.

But it also recalls the political and economic environment in late 1980, following the US embassy hostage crisis in Iran, the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and never-ending lines in gas stations. And a former Hollywood film actor by the name of Ronald Reagan was the Republican presidential candidate hoping to defeat Democratic president Jimmy Carter, an expert in national security who had served as a naval officer on nuclear submarines.

It's easy to forget that when he was running against Mr Carter in 1980, the general public and the media didn't take Mr Reagan very seriously at first. In fact, most pundits had predicted that the more experienced George H W Bush and not Mr Reagan would be selected as the Republican presidential candidate that year (Mr Bush ended-up serving as Mr Reagan's running mate).

At that time, America was also facing major foreign policy and military challenges in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan and voters expressed major concerns whether Mr Reagan, the former governor of California, had what it took to lead the US out of the mess. Indeed, opinion polls indicated that while most Americans didn't like Carter and wanted to elect a Republican president, they also felt certain uneasiness with the idea of electing the ex-Hollywood B-grade movie star as the nation's commander in chief.

But Mr Reagan ended up carrying 45 states and winning the election by a very wide margin (495 electoral votes to Mr Carter's 45). Occupying the White House for two full terms, Mr Reagan is seen as the architect of US triumph in the Cold War and he presided over a dramatic recovery of the American economy.

In many ways, presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has become the Ronald Reagan of this year's presidential race. The American people are furious about the state of their economy, the setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they want to see a Democrat winning the White House.

But as the opinion polls suggest, a large number of Americans still feel uncomfortable with Mr Obama. A young and very junior senator from Illinois, Mr Obama's resume as a lawmaker and public servant is very slim and involves mostly local politics.

That Mr Obama is bi-racial with a somewhat enigmatic personal biography - he was born out of wedlock to an adventurous white woman and a Kenyan father, raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii, attended primary school in Indonesia and has an exotic name - makes it difficult for the American voter who doesn't read The New York Times to 'deconstruct' Mr Obama. That explains why a large percentage of Americans still believe that Mr Obama is a Muslim, for instance.

At the same time, presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain is a familiar figure and a known quantity for most Americans who know of his time as a POW in Vietnam and his legislative work in Washington. Polls suggest that these same voters are not very excited about Mr McCain, that they are worried about his advanced age (72), and that they disagree with his views on the need to maintain long-term military presence in Iraq. But they feel comfortable with someone who looks like their old uncle and whose name they can pronounce.

One can make the argument that in theory many voters want to elect Mr Obama as president - as the candidate of change - who, like Mr Reagan, would help improve America's standing in the world and fix up the economy. But they are not sure yet whether they know enough about the new kid on the block to make that decision.

Mr Obama's recent trip to the Middle East and Europe was aimed at assuaging the concerns the voters have about him and to project himself as someone who feels comfortable on the world stage. But it's not clear if he succeeded in achieving that goal. It seems Mr Obama still has a some distance to go.

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


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