James Forsyth

Obama failed this week as well as Clinton

James Forsyth says that Hillary’s disappointment in Tuesday’s primaries is matched by the decline in Obama’s image, as the sheen of the wunderkind fades and doubts multiply

Obama failed this week as well as Clinton
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James Forsyth says that Hillary’s disappointment in Tuesday’s primaries is matched by the decline in Obama’s image, as the sheen of the wunderkind fades and doubts multiply

Barack Obama entered the arena on Tuesday night to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Rising’. But a more appropriate song would have been ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ by the Rolling Stones. For although Obama did not get the two victories he wanted (in Indiana and North Carolina) to knock Hillary out of the race, he got what he needed: a far bigger win in North Carolina than Hillary Clinton achieved in Indiana. So after these two contests, Obama is within touching distance of the nomination — indeed, much of the media is now ready to declare him the nominee — and he can expect a steady flow of the all-important super-delegates to declare for him in the coming days. To be sure of the nomination, Obama needs two things: to be ahead in pledged delegates and ahead in the popular vote. In these circumstances and short of an awful scandal, the super-delegates would neither wish to nor dare to deny Obama the nomination.

The significance of Obama’s margin in North Carolina and Hillary’s failure to run up one in Indiana is that it should ensure that Obama is ahead in the popular vote as well as the delegate count at the end of this process on 3 June. If he is not, then the party would be subject to an unbelievably divisive argument. The Clintons would contend that Obama’s lead in pledged delegates was illegitimate as it had came from caucuses which disenfranchise their supporters. One Clinton staffer I spoke to this week was positively giddy about sending GIs out to make this argument (serving GIs could not vote in the caucuses, which require you to be physically present at a set place at a set time). But after Tuesday, this window has closed for the Clinton campaign — and Hillary’s subdued manner in her victory speech (in stark contrast to her barnstorming campaigning in recent days) suggests she knows it. Her decision to cancel her appearances on the morning shows on Wednesday tells the same story.

While the Clintons’ failure to change the course of the nominating process is the main message of these primaries, it is important to remember that Obama has failed too. His campaign predicted it would win Indiana and lost — the first time that this has happened. Obama’s failure to seal the deal is personal. A vote for president, the head of state, is not really about party politics; everything from the candidate’s family to his manner of speaking is taken into account. After all, the American people are inviting this person into their living-room for the next four years. The polling question about which candidate you would rather have a beer with is much mocked, but it gets at an important truth. For many voters, feeling comfortable with a candidate is as important as the precise details of their policy positions.

At first this worked in Obama’s favour; few wanted the Clintons back in their living- rooms. But as his string of victories made him the focus of attention people became less sure. They had known Obama for only four short years and while he may have made a good first impression, they wanted to know more about him before deciding to give him a standing invitation to pop in for the next four.

This is why the series of scandals that have hit Obama since the end of February have been so damaging to him. First, there was one of his team apparently telling the Canadians to ignore his anti-trade rhetoric as it was just politics — this suggested that Obama was just another politician. Then there was the beginning of the trial of Obama’s former patron Tony Rezko, which raised doubts about whether he was as free of the usual taints of politics as people thought. Then the fact that Obama was friendly with an unrepentant leftist terrorist began to be talked out, implying that he moved in a very odd milieu. Then, most damagingly, came Reverend Wright, a racialist preacher filled not with hope but rage, who had been Obama’s friend and pastor. This drew into question his entire political persona: how could someone who presents themselves as a healer of divisions have been friends with and spent 20 years worshipping in the church of a man whose views are so divisive? This is a paradox that Obama has yet to, or cannot, explain. The revelation that Oprah Winfrey quit the church, apparently because of her concern about Wright’s sermons, raises further questions about Obama’s judgment. If a talk-show host could see what the problem was, why could someone who aspires to be president not?

The damage that Wright has done to Obama is demonstrated by the fact that 46 and 47 per cent of voters in both Indiana and North Carolina respectively said that Wright was important to their vote. In Indiana 70 per cent of these voters went for Clinton and in North Carolina 57 per cent did.

The effective end of the Democratic primary process will allow Obama to get some sleep — he is visibly exhausted right now — and his campaign can turn its attention to the general election. Obama’s speech on Tuesday showed that he will put a heavy emphasis on his patriotism: Obama’s voice rarely breaks when he is speaking but it did when he delivered the line, ‘I know the promise of America because I have lived it.’ Considering John McCain’s heroic record of service, Obama will need to push his own brand of inspirational patriotism.

This primary process has gone on for so long that it is easy to forget just how remarkable Obama’s rise has been: a man who addressed the last Democratic convention as an unknown state senator from Illinois will do so as his party’s nominee this year. There has never been a rise this dramatic in the history of the Republic. He is a politician of great skill and the best orator for many years. But the drawn-out primary process has knocked some of the sheen from him and motivated the conservative base to keep him out of office.

The Clinton–Obama fight has focused on personality, as there are so few policy differences between them. In the general election, the policy divide between the two candidates will be huge on everything from Iraq to healthcare. Obama argues that this split will enable him to win over the Clinton voters he needs to beat McCain; in both Indiana and North Carolina less than half of them said that they would vote for Obama in the fall. But policy alone will not be enough. Obama will need to persuade these voters at the very least that they can trust him and preferably that they would like to have a beer with him too. So the most important battle of the general election will be to define Obama.

For all McCain’s and Obama’s talk about running respectful campaigns, it will get personal very fast. We will soon know if the primary process has toughened Obama up for the coming fight or just exposed his weaknesses for all to see.