Obama: Why isn’t he comfortably ahead?

Polls show that Obama's comfortable lead over McCain has all but disappeared.

So much for Barack Obama’s invincibility, said Glenn Thrush in Politico.com. For a while there it looked as if the junior senator from Illinois, flush with “cash, charisma, and hope,” would be a shoo-in as our next president. During his recent triumphal foreign tour, he came across like the leader of the free world. Poor John McCain was being all but written off as old, unfocused, and just plain irrelevant. But suddenly, Obama looks vulnerable. Polls show his comfortable lead over McCain has all but disappeared. Supporters are suffering a pre-convention “panic attack,” as McCain gains ground in critical swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. It doesn’t make sense, said The New Republic in an editorial. The economy is a mess, the public wants out of Iraq, and 80 percent think the country is on the wrong track. “These are the type of painful times when voters invariably turn to Democrats. So why aren’t they turning to Obama in greater numbers?”

You can sum it up in a single word: race, said John Heilemann in New York. Despite Obama’s meteoric rise, many Americans are still not entirely comfortable with putting a black man in the White House. Only 34 percent to 37 percent of white working-class voters, the latest Gallup poll has found, support him. And that figure is likely to shrink as the McCain campaign skillfully employs coded language to exploit the “pronounced, albeit inchoate, unease with Obama’s ‘otherness.’” Sure, race may be a factor, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, but there are more tangible reasons for the public’s wariness. Out of sheer political expediency, Obama has flip-flopped on several key issues, undermining his claim of being a different kind of candidate. Now that they’re really paying attention to Obama’s slippery rhetoric, people have begun wondering, “Who is this man?”

It’s a valid question, said David Brooks in The New York Times. Throughout his adult life, Obama has been an elusive figure, keeping one foot outside any institution he’s joined. As a Chicago community organizer, and as a University of Chicago law professor, people admired him—but felt he was just passing through on his way to something bigger. That impression followed him through the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate. At no time did Obama ever commit. Is he a liberal? An anti-war activist? A pragmatic centrist? The answer is both yes and no. Obama may be “coldly clever and self-aware,” but America simply does not know what to make of him.

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Frankly, said Walter Shapiro in Salon.com, America is also suffering from Obama fatigue. A startling Pew poll has found that 48 percent of voters feel they’ve been “hearing too much” about him. Just as tellingly, 38 percent are complaining about hearing too little about John McCain. Obama may just have peaked too early. All that rapturous adoration has given way to skepticism, said Kathleen Parker in the Orlando Sentinel. Obama’s pledge to reinvent American politics “was all a little too wonderful, a little too scripted.”

Every campaign hits a lull, said Michael Tomasky in The Washington Post, and at the Democratic Convention in Denver next week, Obama will get his chance to recover his momentum. McCain’s attacks on Obama as an empty-suited celebrity have hurt him, but polls show 65 percent of voters still find Obama the more likable candidate. In Denver, Obama has to return to his strength—his pledge to transcend partisanship and race, and to restore American ideals. If he is to win this election, Obama can’t exchange attacks with McCain. He must convince a majority of Americans “to vote their hopes, not their fears.”

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