Business Times - 26 Aug 2008
More Americans perceive him as an 'elitist' while MrMcCain is seen as an 'average guy'
By LEON HADAR
ANOTHER important chapter in the story of the Great American Dream will be written during the Democratic National Convention in Denver this week, when Barack Obama will accept the nomination of his party to be the next president.
For the first time in America's history - a black person will be elected by one of its leading parties to run for the highest political office in the country. That an African-American who belongs to an ethnic minority whose members arrived in chains and in slave-ships and who have suffered more than two centuries of official and unofficial discrimination, has a real chance to spend four years in the same White House occupied in the past by Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Reagan, is in itself an indication that notwithstanding many of the problems that American is facing now, it still has a political system that encourages gradual, and yet dramatic, progress.
The meteoric political rise of the 42-year-old Obama is even more amazing when one considers that unlike other respected African-American figures, such as former secretary of state and retired general, Colin Powell, he isn't a long-time member of Washington's political establishment.
The son of a black Kenyan man and unwed white woman from Kansas, he spent his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii, and his foreign- sounding name, 'Barack Hussein Obama' continues to sound exotic and threatening to many white Americans, especially in the post-9/11 period when xenophobia has been on the rise.
But astounding pundits and other purveyors of the conventional wisdom, Mr Obama, a young and newly elected senator from Illinois, was able to successfully challenge Senator Hillary Clinton - a former first lady with the name-recognition of a Hollywood celebrity - during the Democratic presidential primaries and win enough delegates to become the presumptive presidential candidate of his party.
Mr Obama's victory was the result of a very effective management of his campaign as well as his remarkable personal attributes, including his youth, intelligence, speaking skills and charisma, and his success in inspiring many Americans, and in particular young and first-time voters to join his crusade for 'change'.
At a time when so many Americans have been expressing their disenchantment with the direction their nation has been taking during the eight years of what is seen as the failed presidency of George W Bush - the mess in the Middle East, the erosion in US prestige around the world, the growing economic problem and never-ending stream of political scandals - Mr Obama's message, including his anti-Iraq-War stand, seemed to have the power to attract the support of many voters and to sweep Mr Obama into the White House.
Indeed, until a few weeks ago, political professionals in Washington were predicting that in a year when the Republican 'brand name' has been very unpopular and the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate was igniting so much excitement aka 'Obamania' not only in America but around the world, Mr Obama could win the White House by a landslide and even carry 'red' states like Virginia and North Carolina that have traditionally been won by the Republicans.
That the Republican presumptive presidential candidate, the 72-year- old John McCain was perceived as a remnant of ancient political times and associated with the policies of President Bush only seemed to raise the expectation that nothing could stop the political momentum of 'cool' Obama.
But even during the primaries there were some warning signs that not all was well in Obama Land. Mr Obama failed to 'connect' with white blue-collar workers in strategically-important states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, that a Democratic presidential candidate needs to win in order to get into the White House, and lost the primaries in these and other states to Hillary Clinton.
Mr Obama's close ties with his pastor in Chicago, whose sermons blasting US policies were broadcast on YouTube clearly didn't help Mr Obama, enabling the Clinton campaign to portray Mr Obama as someone who was exhibiting 'un-American' characteristics and who didn't have the necessary experience in foreign policy and national security to become the commander-in-chief.
Instead of launching a major campaign to introduce himself to the American people, Mr Obama wasted a lot of time recovering from the exhausting primary campaign and then travelling to Europe and the Middle East as part of an effort to demonstrate Mr Obama's foreign policy credentials. The trips seemed to be a huge success in Berlin, Germany and Paris, France - but not in Berlin, Pennsylvania, and Paris, Texas, whose votes Mr Obama needs to carry in November.
At the same time, the campaign of John McCain seemed to be adopting many of the anti-Obama messages that Hillary Clinton had used during her campaign. Recognising that most Americans still haven't made up their mind about Obama, the Republicans released several television commercials that derided his status as a media celebrity, comparing him to lightweights Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and suggesting that Mr Obama is nothing more than an 'empty suit'.
Even more amazing has been the failure of the Obama campaign to exploit the economic problems facing voters - rising energy prices, home foreclosures, and a credit squeeze - and to portray Mr McCain and the Republicans as the allies of Wall Street and Big Business.
The result has been that more Americans perceive Mr Obama as an 'elitist' while Mr McCain - whose wife Cindy, an heiress whose personal worth may exceed US$100 million - and who owns at least seven homes, is seen as an 'average guy'.
And finally, Mr McCain, whose top foreign policy adviser is a former paid lobbyist for the Republic of Georgia, has taken advantage of the war in the Caucasus to threaten to punish Russia if he is elected as president (including by expelling it from the G-8 summits), while accusing Mr Obama (who was vacationing in Hawaii at the time) of not being tough enough.
The attacks on Mr Obama seemed to be having an effect on his standing in the polls. Until June - most polls showed Mr Obama ahead of Mr McCain, maintaining a margin of between three to nine points - the two seemed to be locked in a statistical dead heat in the race.
All of which explains why the political stakes for Mr Obama are so high in Denver. In a way, the four-day convention, a choreographed media spectacle, will provide an opportunity for Mr Obama to introduce himself and his family, including his wife Michelle, to the American people who will be watching his nomination and acceptance speech broadcast live on prime-time television.
A special effort will be made to portray the personal and political odyssey of Mr Obama as an American Story, and to draw attention to the humble origins of Mr Obama and Michelle, members of hardworking blue-collar families who had worked hard to raise and educate their children who eventually were accepted to the top Ivy League schools.
This personal story will be integrated into a larger populist message that will attempt to portray Mr McCain and the Republicans as the Party of the Rich, and to stress the commitment of Mr Obama and the Democrats to solve the economic problems facing hardworking middle-class Americans.
Mr Obama's choice of running-mate - Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware - seems also to fit with the overall more aggressive strategy of the Obama Campaign. The 65- year-old Biden, is a highly respected public figure who is very popular in Congress and the media, and whose experience in foreign policy - serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years - could help Mr Obama demonstrate that despite his brief tenure in Washington, he is planning to rely on the advice of Wise Men (and Women) like Mr Biden, especially when it comes to national security issues.
Moreover, Mr Biden was raised in Pennsylvania in a working-class family and could help Mr Obama improve his standing among the kind of white voters who still feel uneasy about the African-American candidate. And Mr Biden is also a tough campaigner who is expected to serve as Mr Obama's 'attack dog' against Mr McCain in the next three months.
Mr McCain and the Republicans are going to have their chance to retaliate against Mr Obama and the Democrats during the Republican National Convention in St Paul, Minnesota, next week. Most pundits expect Mr McCain to select former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who was beaten by Mr McCain during the Republican presidential primaries as his running mate.
Mr Romney, like Mr McCain, is a multimillionaire (but unlike Mr McCain, he didn't marry money, but made it himself) who also owns several homes in the US, which would make him an ideal target for Democratic attacks.
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