The Elephant in the Room

Well, Obama is back in the lead. The poll of polls on RealClearPolitics shows a 2 point lead. It would appear the Palin effect is subsiding. Not surprising, considering her reluctance to do press interviews after her mediocre performance with Charlie Gibson is raising questions. The most significant factor, however, is the financial crisis engulfing Wall Street coupled with a seemingly confused John McCain. It goes a long way toward explaining Obama’s rise in the polls.

The Democratic candidate has shown greater energy and aggressiveness in communicating his economic message and has shifted from his temporary Palin obsession to get back on message. After all, it’s his campaign that is about his change, not hers. McCain and the GOP gambled they change the election dynamic from experience versus change to one where McCain is once again the maverick reformer, and Palin just made the change more apparent. It was smart politics, even if it smacks of cynicism. (Read conservative columnist David Brooks’s take in the NY Times.)

Still, this was supposed to be the ‘slam dunk’ election year of the Democrats. An unpopular president, a failing economy, inconclusive war efforts compromising US interests elsewhere, growing pessimism about the country’s direction, struggling American families losing their homes and facing reduced economic opportunity — all of this was supposed to be enough to make the November result easy to predict. Add to this that no one believes the Republicans will capture either of the two Houses, and Obama should have been coasting to an easy victory. You would think he’d be 8 or 10 points ahead. Well, think again.

Some of Obama’s struggles are related to the candidate himself. Daring to take on the vaunted Clinton machine before he was even a full-term senator was enough to raise doubts about Obama. This blog has always maintained that doubt was his biggest adversary. He has run an outstanding campaign so far — calm and steady throughout. It’s a reflection of the Illinois senator’s temperament and a hint of the kind of president he might be. And with three debates on the horizon, the Democratic candidate can go a long to dissipate some of the doubt and close the deal. Except it may not be enough.

Few doubt Obama’s intelligence or his talent. His stance on Iraq and his choice of Biden go a long way to show his judgement on the tough calls. Yet, there is an elephant in the room and I am not referring to the Republican symbol. Over the weekend, an AP-Yahoo News poll revealed that one third of white Democrats harbor a negative view of blacks and this probably explains why the deal is not closed. The survey also revealed doubts about Obama on non-racial issues, but the race factor is real and cannot be ignored with less than 50 days to go.

When I was in New Hampshire last January, some white Democrats told me that Obama spoke above the racial issue, that he was a uniter, that he went beyond the culture wars that have so dominated and divided US politics since the late 60’s. Even the Reverend Wright episode was not enough to bring race to the forefront for long. Obama’s More Perfect Union speech reinforced his candidacy as something different, new and refreshing. But that was the Democratic primary and while it was bruising, it did not invoke the culture wars of the past. A general election is a different reality. Obama needs to perform well in the debates to reduce the doubt about his person. But will it be enough to get the elephant out of the room?

Back in the 80’s, we were introduced to the Bradley effect when Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles ran for the governorship of California. Bradley had a comfortable lead in the polls throughout the campaign, but lost the election by a narrow margin, proving no pollster can really predict how race will play out in political campaigns. In my view, the current lead is too small to offset a contemporary Bradley effect. Obama must hit hard in the weeks ahead to make this an election of change on the economy. And he must hope that America is ready to take its next big step forward.

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