Has Barack Obama damaged his brand with a series of high-profile reversals on policy stands, on everything to FISA reform, gun control, and public financing, among other points? Charles Krauthammer doesn’t believe he has, at least not among his main constituency, but recent polling may tell a different story in the key groups needed for victory in November. Krauthammer believes that Mr. Malleable can survive any reversal, and hints that Obama has become a belief system in and of himself with his core supporters:
Normally, flip-flopping presidential candidates have to worry about the press. Not Obama. After all, this is a press corps that heard his grandiloquent Philadelphia speech — designed to rationalize why “I can no more disown [Jeremiah Wright] than I can disown my white grandmother” — then wiped away a tear and hailed him as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. Three months later, with Wright disowned, grandma embraced and the great “race speech” now inoperative, not a word of reconsideration is heard from his media acolytes.
Worry about the press? His FISA flip-flop elicited a few grumbles from lefty bloggers, but hardly a murmur from the mainstream press. Remember his pledge to stick to public financing? Now flush with cash, he is the first general-election candidate since Watergate to opt out. Some goo-goo clean-government types chided him, but the mainstream editorialists who for years had been railing against private financing as hopelessly corrupt and corrupting evinced only the mildest of disappointment.
Indeed, the New York Times expressed a sympathetic understanding of Obama’s about-face by buying his preposterous claim that it was a preemptive attack on McCain‘s 527 independent expenditure groups — notwithstanding the fact that (a) as Politico‘s Jonathan Martin notes, “there are no serious anti-Obama 527s in existence nor are there any immediate plans to create such a group” and (b) the only independent ad of any consequence now running in the entire country is an AFSCME-MoveOn.org co-production savaging McCain.
And yet, the New York Times seems to stand alone among newspapers in their reaction to Obama’s abandonment on public financing. The Washington Post’s editorial board reamed Obama for his reversal, as did a number of other papers, especially since Obama had told them personally that he would stay within the system. No less a progressive than Mark Shields pointed out exactly what Krauthammer notes in this column, making the point even more explicitly that Obama essentially lied about his reasons for pulling out of the race.
On FISA reform and gun control, Obama has had a little more political cover — but it hasn’t helped. Howard Kurtz ripped his colleagues in the media for not reporting Obama’s old quotes on the DC gun ban earlier today. Keith Olbermann had to defend himself from Glenn Greenwald yesterday for buying Obama’s spin on his support for the FISA reform compromise bill that contained telecom immunity.
Margaret Talev at McClatchy asked the big question yesterday — has Obama lost the one quality that made him special?
From the beginning, Barack Obama’s special appeal was his vow to remain an idealistic outsider, courageous and optimistic, and never to shift his positions for political expediency, or become captive of the Inside-the-Beltway intelligentsia, or kiss up to special interests and big money donors.
In recent weeks, though, Obama has done all those things.
He abandoned public campaign financing after years of championing it. Backed a compromise on wiretap legislation that gives telecom companies retroactive immunity for helping the government conduct spying without warrants. Dumped his controversial pastor of two decades — then his church — after saying he could no more abandon the pastor than abandon his own grandmother.
In other words, if Obama turns out to be just like everyone else in DC, shouldn’t we elect someone with experience and a track record? The polls indicate that a lot of people are asking the same question. Obama has stalled at a time when he should be ascending. He and Hillary have started working together to unify the party, but instead of his numbers going up, they’re dropping slightly instead. He has lost four points off his edge on McCain in the Time poll to fall into a virtual tie, and McCain has explicitly tied him in the Gallup tracking poll for three straight days.
What does this mean? Obama isn’t making the sale in the middle. Krauthammer may be right that the True Believers will never depart from Obama, but merely gaining the trust of the converted won’t win him the election. He has to get the centrists, independents, and conservative Democrats on board, and right now John McCain is making inroads in these groups instead. Obama has shifted his positions explicitly to convince these voters to support him, but he has made himself into the antithesis of what his campaign supposedly represents: the same, old, dishonest politics. Instead of representing Hope and Change, he has broken trust with voters on issue after issue in a naked grab for power.
John McCain has reversed himself on off-shore drilling and the Bush tax cuts, as his opponents point out. However, McCain acknowledges those changes and explains them (the oil situation has changed significantly and it has serious national-security implications, and McCain now admits that the Bush tax cuts worked). Obama changes his position and tries to hoodwink people into believing that he hasn’t. A gifted politician could get away with that sleight-of-hand once in a campaign, but when it starts becoming a habit, no one buys the act any longer — and Obama has a long string of reversals in just the last few weeks alone. People get annoyed when a politician repeatedly insults their intelligence.
He has broken the brand, and at the moment in time when he needs the big lift, his lies and obfuscations have acted like an anchor with the swing voters who will decide this election. Even if the True Believers never take off the blinders and see Obama’s feet of clay, that doesn’t mean Mr. Malleable will prevail.