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Obama as Closer?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/obama-iowa.jpgSen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) (WDCpix)

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA—Candi Schmieder doesn’t know what more she can do. She had witnessed first-hand the ascendancy of Sen. Barack Obama, the nice young politician from Illinois who had moved from one remarkable speech during the Democratic National Convention four years ago into the runaway winner of the Iowa caucus.

Working as a precinct captain for her town of Marengo–population 2,500– she herself had introduced him in Des Moines before 7,000 people. She’d canvassed door-to-door, and watched as he successfully battled the person many thought was an unstoppable force, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then she watched in awe last week as he met with world leaders from across the globe and spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, the city that,since the close of World War II, best represented the best ambitions of U.S.foreign policy.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But now, surrounded by her three young children at a gymnasium at Coe College, a small red-brick liberal arts school in Iowa, she had to ask: Where was the bump?

Because for all the successes the Obama campaign had with its trip abroad, combined with the gaffes made by his Republican rival Sen. John McCain and the massive unpopularity of the current Republican administration, the race remains eerily close. Obama and McCain are in a statistical dead heat in Colorado and Virginia, Michigan, Ohio and Florida. McCain has even seen slight gains in Colorado and Missouri.

“It can be frustrating knowing people who supported Clinton and Edwards, who still say they don’t know what to do,” Schmieder, 29, said. “I say, ‘You should already know what to do!’”

The closeness of the campaign raises a key question: Is Obama a closer?

Remember, after his victory in Iowa, when he was supposed to take New Hampshire and the rest of states with ease, and then, well, didn’t. Then, in the long primary season, Clinton kept winning just enough. Even after Clinton conceded, Obama only got a small bump in the polls. Nor did he receive any lift following his love-fest in Eruope, where he showed himself to be a capable, eloquent statesman.

In the meantime, the contest at home has taken a dark turn. In the past few weeks, McCain has gone from calling Obama a political neophyte, to labeling him someone you couldn’t trust because of his lack of military service, to man who’d lose a war to win an election. As a topper, the McCain campaign has seized on Obama’s popularity, equating his celebrity with that of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. To which Obama, in Cedar Rapids, quipped, “Is that the best you can do?”

“He’s in danger of being sucked into a negative campaign,” said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schenider. “McCain’s trying to make him out to be a risky, unsure leader. He has to respond but has to stay above the fray. It’s a very thin line.”

There are, of course, real reasons why Obama hasn’t generated the kind of lead one would expect from such a disciplined campaign that has proven so skillful at diffusing criticism. The first is that, despite Obama’s attempt to link McCain with George W. Bush, McCain isn’t Bush. Nor is he Dick Cheney.

The American public might loathe a president it put into office not once, but twice, as well as his second-in-command. But neither of them is running. McCain — the onetime centrist and maverick, the American hero–is.

Further, despite his rock-star appeal, many people feel they just don’t know Obama well enough. And the vote for president is the most personal ballot. For millions of people, he simply plopped onto their internal radars when he stole the thunder from Sen. John Kerry and his band of brothers with his speech at the 2004 convention, then popped up again when he announced his decision to seek the presidency.

Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist, said the continual campaign is making things more complicated. “The idea that voters pay attention to three or four critical moments of a campaign is a theory that’s outmoded,” Carrick said, “With the 24-hour news cycle, you have a lot more process coverage, and everything tends to flatten out. Instead of peaks and valleys, you have more of a straight road. A lot of times, people simply aren’t paying attention to what’s supposed to be a critical moment.”

Yet none of these reasons for the flatness of the polls strikes at the question of whether Obama can close. When we look to closers in baseball, we see men—Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera, the so-called “Nasty Boys” who led my beloved Reds to the 1990 World Series—whose whole identities are based around their ability to finish what they started, to seal the deal. Kyra Sedgwick’s character on the TNT series “The Closer” is prized for her ability to get a confession when others can’t.

Now we now must ask whether Obama can do the same — finish what he started. That’s because one can argue that Obama never really closed during the campaign against Clinton, he simply outlasted her. In each big state—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and California—where Obama could have put Clinton away, he didn’t. And each miss gave more power to Clinton supporters in the Democratic Party, including her husband, who argued she should stay in the race even if meant pushing the lot fight to the convention.

Now Obama faces something that should intellectually be easy compared to his primary brawl with Clinton. With each passing day, it becomes apparent that the boyish, friendly McCain of the 2000 Republican primary no longer exists, submerged by anger and resentment and a reliance on fear. Moreover, we are in the middle of an unpopular war launched by a Republican president, under whose watch the country has seen more home foreclosures than the Great Depression. As much as Obama is a symbol of hope for his constituents, he’s seems a lifeline to another option to whatever we’re in now.

“He has problems that no candidate has ever had before,” said former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, who served as chairman for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run. “He’s the first person of color to be the nominee of his party. He had to show he could be on the international stage with foreign leaders and he did that. Now what he has to do is get back to relating to regular people. Gore had to do it and never quite succeeded to get there.

“I tried a lot of things with Gore,” Coelho said. “I tried to get him to water-ski, because he was good at it. I tried to get him to play pick-up basketball, but he wouldn’t do that because he thought he’d be copying [former New Jersey Sen.] Bill Bradley. He played pool and he wouldn’t do that in public either. These were all things that would make him approachable to ordinary people — and he just wouldn’t do them. That what Obama has to do — make the public understand what he’s really like, and how he relates to them.”

It would seem, given his first days back on the trail, that Obama’s done just that. After meeting with economic advisers in Washington, Obama came to the heart of the heart of the country— to rural Missouri, a state where polls show McCain with a 47.5 to 45 percent lead. There, beginning in Springfield and going onto Rolla and Union, Obama took off his jacket, taking questions in small forums. He fell into an almost folksy accent as he answered people’s questions about the loss of manufacturing jobs and Social Security, while he later flipped burgers. It was here where he tossed aside to the comparisons between him and Hilton and seemed, well, like ordinary folk.

At the Rolla town-hall at the rec center at Missouri University of Science and Technology, the Obama communications director Robert Gibbs and I stepped outside for a moment, into the sunless, muggy Missouri air. There Gibbs said he was unconcerned about the lack of a bump from the trip abroad, that it was less of a significant snapshot than part of the overall storyline of the Obama campaign.

“You have a closely divided electorate,” Gibbs said, “Americans are looking to see if he can do the job of president of the United States. What we he have to do over the next 97 days in convince them he can.

“The voters we need to get are people not a whole lot unlike Obama,” Gibbs continued. “They weren’t born into a wealthy family, and they’ve worked hard for what they have. Obviously, you have to demonstrate he’s a real person; and that’s the easiest thing in the world to do because he’s the most down-to-Earth candidate I’ve ever worked for. And I think the size of events is important. You look at today, we have two town-halls and a barbecue. You can’t get much closer to the ground than that. I think that’s the kind of campaign you’ll see us run for the rest of the race.”

If at all troubled, Obama might look to an unlikely source of inspiration: Ronald Reagan in 1980. Then, as now, Americans saw a president struggling with an energy crisis. Inflation had reached record highs. Abroad, 53 members of the U.S. embassy in Tehran were being held captive. The last living symbol of Camelot, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had divided the Democratic Party with a fierce primary challenge to the unpopular incumbent, President Jimmy Carter.

But still the general election stayed close. Reagan had run for the office twice before— but he was still regarded by much as the public as a ideologue of the right. People didn’t like Carter, but were wary of Reagan, who swaggered into the race with tough talk about supply-side economics. His Cold War approach was simply scary. Yes, they disliked Carter, but many were ready to stick with the person they knew.

So Carter stayed in the lead until Reagan’s own closing moment — on Oct. 28, 1980. In perhaps the most important presidential debate since John F. Kennedy took on an orange-hued Richard M. Nixon in 1960, Reagan simply took Carter apart, shaking off attacks in a free-and-easy way. Then he finally asked the American people, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

It was sharp and potent attack, and displayed Reagan’s great ability to get his point across.

Moreover, Reagan did what the best closers do — end a battle in a devastatingly decisive way. Neither Carter nor the American public could answer, “Yes, things are better” because they weren’t. Days later, the Reagan Revolution began with the former California governor’s landslide victory in which he took 44 states to Carter’s six.

Now we will learn whether Obama is capable of such a moment. A man of great rhetorical power and grace, he’s run a historic campaign, notable regardless of the outcome. But to accomplish his goal, Obama will need to do what he hasn’t yet: reassure the American people that they will be better off with him than they are today, in our own uncertain and troubled time. He will have to show that his ways and ideas surpass those of the well-known McCain.

He, like Reagan before him, will have to become a closer.

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