David Broder wonders whether Barack Obama has underestimated the damage he has done to his brand through two recent and controversial decisions. Given the relative lack of public record on Obama, Broder argues that he needed to spend his time reinforcing his identification as an agent of reform and change. Instead, by dodging John McCain on town-hall debates and opting out of the public-financing system that he himself supports, he risks permanent damage to a brand he hasn’t even fully established with American voters:
McCain benefits from a long-established reputation as a man who says what he believes. His shifts in position that have occurred in this campaign seem not to have damaged that aura. Obama is much newer to most voters, less familiar and more dependent on the impressions he is only now creating.
That is why a pair of strategy decisions made in the past two weeks could prove troublesome for him. The first was Obama’s turning down McCain’s invitation to join him in a series of town hall meetings where they would appear together and answer questions from real voters — without a formal agenda, press panel or professional interviewers. …
Gibbs and campaign counsel Bob Bauer defended Obama’s decision to become the first presidential candidate since the Watergate reforms to decline public financing of his general election campaign.
Broder wonders whether Obama has built sufficient trust with the American electorate to begin on this series of reversals. Dick Morris last week referred to this as “political antibodies”, which candidates build up from a long period of public service. Voters get to know them from years of action, and that gives politicians the ability to be flexible, especially as circumstances change. For instance, most voters understand McCain’s shift on off-shore drilling, because circumstances have not just changed but have made life more difficult for Americans across the board.
In contrast, Obama has almost no public record at all — no legislative track record, no executive experience, no foreign-policy experience, and no military experience. He has not built public trust, but has become popular through his promises of reform. He claims the mantle of crusader, someone who will courageously attack Beltway business as usual and bring a new era of government excellence as a result.
Broder, I think, misses the main point why his examples will resonate harshly against Obama. It’s not the trust; it’s the lack of testicular fortitude. Obama once bragged that he would debate McCain “anywhere, anytime” on foreign policy, but then decided that he could only do that on July 4th, when no one would be watching:
That’s not exactly a profile in courage. Neither was Obama’s decision to back out of public financing this week. Obama repeatedly pledged to stay within that system, and promised to “aggressively pursue” negotiations with the eventual Republican nominee. Obama did neither, and instead issued a weird, rambling video missive that basically stated that the Republicans had intimidated him into abandoning his principles on public financing. Even Mark Shields didn’t buy that rationalization, but Obama clearly had no problem in offering fear as his primary motivation.
If Obama’s damaging the brand, it’s not on trust, or at least not on trust alone. Obama appears to use the politics of fear on himself, or at least offers it as an excuse for abandoning his own positions and principles. Small wonder he needs to create his own pseudo-Great Seal to look presidential on the campaign trail.