Lame-duck Republican President Bush’s dismal poll ratings have descended to those of Harry Truman’s when he left office. The Democratic majority in Congress will probably widen after the election. Republican nominee John McCain has not run a dynamic campaign. Gen. Colin Powell, George Bush’s former secretary of state, has now enthusiastically endorsed Barack Obama.
The country is in two unpopular wars - amid the worst financial panic of the last 80 years. Not since prophet of change and newcomer Jimmy Carter ran against Gerald Ford (post Watergate and the lost Vietnam war) have voters been so eager for a shake-up.
Why then is the charismatic Barack Obama not quite yet a shoo-in?
Easy. Voters apparently still don’t know who Mr. Obama is, or what he wants to do - and so are still not altogether sure Mr. Obama is the proper antidote to George Bush. After more than a year of campaigning, he still remains an enigma.
Mr. Obama promised to be the post-racial candidate who would bring us together. But when asked in March 2004 whether he attended regularly the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, Mr. Obama boasted, “Yep. Every week. 11 o’clock service.”
The healer Barack Obama further characterized the racist Mr. Wright as “certainly someone who I have an enormous amount of respect for.” And Mr. Obama described the even more venomous Father Michael Pfleger as “a dear friend, and somebody I interact with closely.”
Mr. Obama can dismiss his past associations with Bill Ayers as perfunctory and now irrelevant. But why then did an Obama campaign spokesman say Mr. Obama hadn’t e-mailed with or spoken by phone to Mr. Ayers since January 2005, suggesting more than three years of communications - in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, climate - after Mr. Ayers said publicly he had not done enough bombing?
Mr. Obama’s campaign shrugged when legal doubts were raised about the sloppy voter registration practices of ACORN - an organization Mr. Obama himself has both helped and praised.
Yet Mr. Obama once was a stickler for proper voter documents. In 1996, he had all of his Democratic rivals removed from the ballot in an Illinois state primary election on the basis of sloppy voter petitions.
Many of Mr. Obama’s surrogates, from congressional leaders like Rep. John Lewis to Mr. Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, have suggested the McCain and Palin candidacies have heightened racial tensions. Do such pre-emptory warnings mean one cannot worry about Mr. Obama’s 20-year relationship with Mr. Wright or long association with Father Pfleger?
It’s also unclear exactly what Mr. Obama’s message of “hope” and “change” means. The hope part turned a little weird when Mr. Obama, in prophetic fashion, proclaimed, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” and later put up Greek-temple backdrops for his speech at the Democratic Convention.
If we didn’t get that supernatural message, Mr. Obama also promised of his election that it would be the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
And change? Mr. Obama himself has changed positions on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the North American Free Trade Agreement, campaign public financing, town-hall meetings with John McCain, offshore drilling, nuclear and coal power, capital punishment and gun control, his characterization of Iran, the surge in Iraq, and the future of Jerusalem. So change from what to what?
Under Mr. Obama’s tax plan, nearly half of all income earners wouldn’t pay federal income taxes. He also offers billions in cash payments to millions of those people. And he promises to pay for that loss in revenue by upping taxes on those in the highest income brackets, who already pay the majority of existing income taxes - and who could also be subject to proposed higher payroll, estate and capital-gains taxes.
Is that a tax-cut policy or more a redistribution of wealth in search of forced equality - what Mr. Obama himself apparently calls to “spread the wealth around” or what Mr. Biden once suggested was “patriotic”?
A Martian who reviewed Mr. Obama’s past elections in Illinois, the various associations he once cultivated, his brief voting record in the Senate, and the positions he originally outlined when he announced his presidential campaign might objectively conclude that America could elect either the most far left or the most unknown presidential candidate in its history.
I just hope it is still not racist or McCarthy-like - or blasphemous - simply to suggest that.
Victor Davis Hanson is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.