Tonight Barack Obama will effectively clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, even though it could still take a day or two for enough superdelegates to rally to his side, and for Hillary Clinton to accept the inevitable. Therefore, this is as good a time as any to point out some things Obama did or not do in this primary campaign that could possibly damage him, either now or in the fall matchup against Republican Senator John McCain.
1) The not-so-rapid response. No matter what you think of the comments made by Obama’s longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright – and I personally found them highly objectionable -, it did also reveal another possible weakness for Obama in the bare-knuckle general election fight: He seems reluctant to fight back against charges lobbed against himself. He only belatedly realized the severe political implications of his pastor connections, as if he felt that responding to attacks against someone who does not speak on his behalf was beneath him. Memo to candidate: The voters decide what is or isn’t fair game. Obama needs to adapt to this unpleasant political reality, unless he wants to be swiftboated out of consideration. Even though his handling of ‘bitter-gate’ was a clear improvement, this could still be a cause for concern.
2) He underestimated the Clinton brand. For all practical purposes, Obama has been the presumptive nominee for months. This is much due to the primary calendar, that delivered him a string of strong caucus showings and an eleven state winning streak in the weeks after Super Tuesday, which served to boost his aura of inevitably. However, this dynamic also seems to have made Obama a little too self-confident. Even if he sweeps South Dakota and Montana tonight, Clinton will have won more contests, more delegates and more votes in the closing months of this race. As Obama failed to drive Clinton out after Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, he still decided to treat her as an asterisk in his campaign, which only strengthened Clinton supporters’ sense that he was taking them for granted in looking to the general election. Much of the subsequent bitterness and intraparty bickering could have been avoided, had Obama shown a little more humility at this point in the campaign.
3) The Michigan/Florida debacle. Of course, the Democratic National Committee and Michigan and Florida Democratic Party leaders are mostly to blame for this. Sure, it would be unfair to award Clinton all the votes out of Michigan, in a race where Obama wasn’t even on the ballot, and especially if this could have strengthened Clinton’s moral claim in wooing superdelegates. But, isn’t that pretty much what happened anyway? Heading out of the Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting Saturday, Clinton supporters were absolutely outraged that the meeting decided to award Obama four additional Michigan delegates. From a tactical standpoint: Did the Obama campaign need these extra delegates? No. Could they have tilted the race in Clinton’s favor? Most certainly not. Bottom line: The validity of Clinton’s claims aside, the Obama camp blew their first chance at establishing party unity.
4) He’s still a not a very good debater. Presidential candidate debates are probably overrated when it comes to influencing voters, and Obama has improved vastly on this over the course of the campaign. John McCain is himself not exactly a formidable opponent in this particular regard. There are 3 reasons why I’m still concerned, however: 1) I’m still not sure whether Obama has been vetted as thoroughly as he needs to. Several of the possible problem spots for Obama (Tony Rezko, William Ayers, the Chicago teamsters) might have been deemed largely irrelevant in a Democratic primary. My guess is, John McCain won’t say the same. 2) Obama can sometimes come off as annoyed or overbearing in debates, if he feels that the issues raised are irrelevant (for examples, watch the final Clinton-Obama debate). If the voters decide these issues are indeed relevant, he risks appearing arrogant. 3) These debates are all about expectations. No matter how brilliant the Obama team might be at the expectations game, he will enter the debates as the man to beat. If he fails to deliver, it could temporarily derail his campaign, as it did to Gore in 2000.
5) Obama lacks a campaign narrative. Or, he doesn’t, not really. He has, and will continue to have ‘change’. But will ‘change’ be enough? Obama has worked tirelessly to rid himself of the perception that he is ‘just words’, but judging from his less than stellar grip on blue-collar voters and the less educated or less affluent voters, he still has some work to do. He let Clinton run with the economic populist mantle after John Edwards bowed out in January, and so he has had problems offering up a rationale for his candidacy, beyond the fact that he has a vision for unifying the country. He obviously has thought long and hard about how to achieve this, but if he doesn’t know how to communicate it, he may still come up short against McCain.
All these mistakes can be fixed, of course. The question is how deep the Democratic split is, and how he can make up for all the time he has lost. And, let me be ansolutely clear: I still want him to win.