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Obama’s Slam Dunk?



It is a narrative two years in the making. The story of an eloquent, young man going up against one of the strongest political forces the Democratic Party has ever fielded — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the link to the party’s heyday in the 1990s — and beating her. In doing so, he attracted millions of people to his cause.

It is also the story of a young man confronting another popular, experienced politician — a war hero who promised to unite the country but whose rhetoric and tactics often seemed designed to divide it.

And it is the improbable story of the rise of a young man whose message of hope and change resonated with the yearnings of a country reeling from collapse of the housing bubble. And now it is time for the narrative to draw to a close.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

With Sen. Barack Obama’s 30-minute commercial last night, the junior senator from Illinois began his closing moment — up to this point, the most crucial of his political life. What we heard was a reflection of how he has run his campaign — showing the American people through personal stories; the problems they face, and then offering up reasonable solutions. What he did on television — sure to be mocked by the McCain campaign — was to assure the American people that they could believe not only his individual story but in the future of their national story.

This should come as no surprise. As he did during the long, drawn-out Democratic primary — methodically, steadily gaining delegates while deflecting attacks — Obama has moved with deliberation in the closing days of the campaign.

As dynamic as Obama is regarded in the popular imagination, what has gotten him here today — 15 points ahead of Sen. John McCain in the latest Pew Research Center poll — is an ability to see, with almost academic precision, how to achieve one goal, and then another.

“You can’t wake up this week and say, ‘Oh my, the election’s close,’” said David Willhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager. “What goes into this week has been a year in the making. Nothing happens by magic.”

Wilhelm, who is an informal adviser to the Obama campaign, continued, “Change has been the mantra from Day One, and it will be the mantra this week. The basic narrative has been consistent since he entered this race.”

Despite Obama’s lead in national polls, as high as six percentage points in an average of 10 surveys, the outcome of the election could change. If we have learned anything from history, what a candidate does during the last days of a campaign can carry incalculable weight. Ask President Jimmy Carter about 1980.

To close the deal, Obama and his campaign must, in some ways, work opposite of one another.

The campaign’s ground forces, the likes of which this country has never seen, must make sure that the millions they helped register actually get to the polls. They have to continue knocking on doors to ensure that complacency doesn’t set in. Obama’s workers, paid and voluntary, have not traveled all this way to come up short.

As for Obama himself, he must maintain his steady, cool demeanor, which, ironically, was once viewed as a political liability. But now it has come to symbolize the candidate’s sure hand in the middle of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

“It’s extraordinary,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton White House press secretary and now a political analyst for CBS. “If you look back, there have been so few incidents where he’s been drawn off message, or resorts to getting involved with the attack of the day. He responds — but he does so in a rational, not emotional, way.

“He’s almost boring,” Myers continued. “He never takes the bait. He never gets into a good side fight for a couple of days. Think how many times Clinton got off course. Think how many times McCain makes news because he has to get something off his chest. Obama never does that.”

Obama’s self-discipline has percolated to the lowest levels of his campaign. Save for the occasional wacky comment from running mate Sen. Joe Biden, the Obama campaign has been almost uncanny in its ability to stay on target and never lose sight of the goal. To those in the media, myself included, such control has been maddening.

But it has worked — and it needs to keep working in the final days. It isn’t that the media adore Obama. It just happens that we’ve covered perhaps the most well-run Democratic campaign perhaps since Lyndon B. Johnson swept into office in 1964.

To be sure, the tactical mistakes of his primary and general-election opponents have greatly served his political march to the White House. Running against Hillary Clinton, Obama and his strategists went about their separate businesses, while Clinton, who did not find her true voice and oomph until late in the season, oversaw a disorganized campaign and a strategy that paid little-to-no attention to caucus states, all of which Obama won.

McCain’s mistakes have been no less costly. Since he became the GOP nominee in September, the Arizona senator has relied on what’s amounted to parlor tricks and snarky quotes to demonize his opponent as an “elitist-terrorist buddy-socialist-redistributor” — none of which has seemed to stick, if the polls are to be believed.

More to the point, McCain began his campaign without a coherent economic vision, which has hurt him in the midst of the financial crisis. Despite months of campaigning, he will, in all probability, end the campaign without one as well.

The outlines of the campaign’s concluding week were evident in the final presidential debate. McCain flailed and ranted about Joe the Plumber. Obama came off as near-presidential. Now the young senator from Illinois has to maintain that stance while the Republican Party throws whatever it has left against the very idea of him taking the White House.

“He needs to keep reassuring people he can do the job,” said Tony Coelho, the former House majority whip, who served as general manager of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “He does this with his demeanor, his calmness, by providing a contrast with McCain — who’s changing what he’s talking about every other day, who doesn’t seem to have a focus or message. He needs to keep pressing on home and focus on the need for change.

“If he does this, he’ll win this thing by a very big margin,” said Coelho. “But he’s also got to be very careful that he doesn’t have people saying he’s measuring drapes in the Oval Office, or isn’t working as hard. That could cause him problems at the end. But he’s been so steady. He’s been such a real workhorse this whole race. I don’t expect him to make a mistake. He doesn’t get rattled, and he simply works hard.”

The Obama campaign has been planning for the final week — as it seems to have planned for everything — for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the campaign, from the beginning, had laid out a strategy that took into account any hiccup, any change in the climate here and abroad. When suddenly pressed by the financial meltdown and the economic downturn, for example, Obama acted as if he had a folder marked “economic reckoning” in his file, and had been studying it for months. That would be the folder coming before the one reading, “If they compare you to Lenin,” a reference to former Rep. Tom DeLay’s smear on”Hardball with Chris Matthews” this week.

“Here’s the thing,” said Democratic Party strategist Liz Chadderon. “Don’t take the foot off the pedal. You don’t need a knock-out punch, you don’t need to run-up the score. But you do have to finish strong.”

Obama — as even some Republicans admit — is an exceptional politician with an incredible personal story. But now he has a chance to elevate his story, to make it worthy of history.

Throughout this presidential campaign, seasoned political analysts have marveled to me at the depth and reach of the Obama organization, conceived and orchestrated by David Axelrod and David Plouffe. A win Tuesday might well redefine America’s political landscape.

Obama began this narrative with an incredible beginning, which was surpassed by an unthinkable middle. All the young man has left to do is finish.

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