James Forsyth

Obama needs to knock Hillary out — and quick

Hillary Clinton’s big win in the Pennsylvania primary has drawn attention to four main weaknesses in Barack Obama’s appeal, says James Forsyth

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Hillary Clinton did not have to wait until 3 a.m. for the call telling her that she had won the Pennsylvania primary. Within an hour of the polls closing, the news networks had declared her the winner and by the end of the night she had secured a double-digit lead, handily beating the spread set for her by the media.

Pennsylvania was always going to be Hillary’s kind of state; its demographics play to her strengths. There are a smaller percentage of the groups with whom Barack Obama is strongest — blacks and college graduates — and an above average number of over 65s, with whom Clinton generally does well. On top of that, the median household income is only a little more than $46,000 a year, making the state receptive to Clinton’s economic message.

For this reason, a win wasn’t enough for Hillary — she had to win big, and that she did, despite Obama outspending her by more than two to one in the two biggest ‘media markets’ in the state.

Of course, Obama remains the overwhelming favourite to be the Democratic nominee. His lead among pledged delegates is, even after Tuesday, insurmountable. But his campaign now has four major problems. First, the protracted primary campaign is making Obama a weaker general election candidate. In the six weeks since the last set of contests, three stories have gained prominence that will cause Obama significant problems. There’s the Reverend Wright affair, then there’s Obama’s comment about how small-town Americans cling to God and guns and last, his connection to the former terrorist Bill Ayers. Each comment has undercut Obama’s national appeal.

Jeremiah Wright is Obama’s friend and pastor; the title of Obama’s political manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, is taken from a Wright sermon. So the revelation that Wright’s sermons have included the line ‘God damn America’ and the idea that 9/11 was America’s chickens coming home to roost and that the US government manufactured the Aids virus as a form of social control has taken some of the sheen off Obama’s ‘post-racial’ appeal. The consolation for Obama is that the Revd Wright controversy is so tied up with the history of race in America that the McCain campaign is loath to touch it. However, McCain has no such inhibitions regarding Obama’s comments about bitter small-town folk clinging to God and guns. The Republican machine will use this line to portray Obama as an out-of-touch elitist. Forget Obama the community organiser, the child of a single mum and a dead-beat dad — instead think of Obama the Harvard Law graduate and arugula-eating academic.

In this effort to portray Obama as out of the mainstream, Bill Ayers will have a central role to play. Ayers is an unrepentant former member of the Weather Underground, a violent leftist group that set off bombs at the Pentagon and elsewhere during the Vietnam war. A white child of privilege, Ayers represents the kind of leftism that drove Americans into Dick Nixon’s arms; in 1972, the year of the Pentagon bombing, the Democrats only carried one state in the presidential election. Ayers is now an academic in Chicago and he and Obama are, in the words of Obama’s chief strategist, ‘certainly friendly’. When asked about this connection in a recent debate, an exasperated Obama argued that he was eight at the time of the Pentagon bombing and that Ayers is just ‘a guy who lives in my neighbourhood’. The problem for Obama is that most Americans can’t conceive of living in a neighbourhood where there’s a guy who played a role in the bombing of the Pentagon.

The second problem for Obama is that his supporters keep implying that Hillary is running a Republican campaign, pointing to her ads invoking Osama bin Laden and her efforts to portray Obama as an elitist. But if she is guilty as charged, that should really worry the super-delegates (who will have to decide the nomination). After all, a ‘Republican campaign’ just beat Obama by a double-digit margin in a Democratic primary in a state that the party can’t win the White House without. The political importance of Pennsylvania is demonstrated by the fact that President Bush visited it more than any other state apart from Texas in his first term. And he was prepared in defiance of WTO rules and his own free-trade principles to slap tariffs on imported steel in an unsuccessful attempt to bring Pennsylvania into the Republican column.

The third problem is that there’s a slim chance that the Clinton campaign might just be able to pull ahead of Obama in some measures of the popular vote and thus have grounds to convince super-delegates that they should throw the nomination to her. (Calculating the popular vote is nigh on impossible both because there’s a debate over whether the Florida and Michigan contests, which were not sanctioned by the party, should be included, and because many caucus states do not release raw voting totals.)

The real worry for the Obama campaign is not that the super-delegates would do this — denying an African-American who has won the most delegates the Democratic nomination would rupture the Democratic voting coalition for good — but that a brutal, and perhaps self-fulfilling, case against Obama’s electability would be made in public just months before the general election. Certainly, the Pennsylvania exit polls contained some alarming numbers for Obama. He lost with whites in every age group, and among whites without a college degree — a key swing-voter demographic — he trailed by 37 points. Only 53 per cent of Clinton voters say they would vote for Obama in November.

The last problem for Obama is that he is tarnishing his own brand. What made him so appealing was that he did not seem to be a conventional politician. He appeared to be genuinely thoughtful and in earnest about his desire to bring America, which has been repeatedly sliced and diced by political operatives for the past 14 years, back together. But this has gone out the window. Instead, Obama has become an almost permanent panderer to the worst instincts of the Democratic primary electorate, peddling protectionist snake oil and announcing plans for withdrawal from Iraq that have as much connection to the reality on the ground as Donald Rumsfeld’s pre-war planning did. He has also descended from the moral high ground right into the gutter. In many ways, his campaign in Pennsylvania was more negative than Clinton’s and he regularly distorts McCain’s statements for partisan advantage. You can say that this is just politics, but the whole point of Obama was that he was going to take us beyond that.

There is one way for Obama to stop the bleeding: he must win decisively in Indiana and North Carolina on 6 May. If he did this, he would create huge pressure both politically and financially on Clinton to drop out — she is spending a $1.10 for every $1 she brings in. But if Obama is to do this, he needs to come up with a closing argument. He has a compelling introductory statement about who he is and how politics is broken. But what he does not have is a clinching argument, which is why he cannot seal the deal. He’s already missed chances to knock Hillary out in New Hampshire and Texas. If he misses a third, he might find himself too bloodied to win in November.