Many things Barack Obama did to soar past Hillary Clinton during the primaries now cause him problems as the general-election race tightens.
Mr. Obama once ran successfully as a novel outside critic of Washington. He posed as a politically correct critic of discrimination of all sorts. As an idealist tired of the old Washington doublespeak, Mr. Obama mesmerized thousands with sermons against incumbent dinosaurs.
His own sense of sainthood was only strengthened when he wowed swarms in front of European monuments, and stepped out on a Democratic National Convention stage replete with Greek columns. But the loftier the moral expectations Mr. Obama created, the more the disappointment grew when they couldn’t possibly be met.
Take his signature “hope and change” mantra. It was a natural rallying cry. Either a Bush or Clinton has been in the White House for the last 20 years. Voters were unhappy with the current president - and yet apparently didn’t want another Clinton. Meanwhile, the economy has been rocky, and much of the American public has grown tired of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Obama’s change was aimed against long tenure in Washington - or so he hammered away at Hillary Clinton for nearly a year.
But then suddenly he picked as his vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, the consummate Washington insider. That attempt at balance was understandable, but it only seemed to legitimize opposition charges that Mr. Obama himself valued long D.C. experience - and was no less calculating than any other politician.
Next Mr. Obama attacked outsider Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin for her own unfamiliarity with national government. Fair enough. But again, that tactic still bothered voters: Wasn’t the Alaskan governor a fresh - and welcome - face just like first-term Sen. Obama? And wasn’t Mr. Biden a stale old-timer in Washington - and if so, as suspect as veteran John McCain? And, come to think of it, wouldn’t it have been better to have the experienced candidate at the top of the ticket, balanced by the outsider at the bottom, rather than vice versa?
Suddenly we are hearing constantly about sex and age in this campaign - and that also deflates St. Obama, who promised not just to be the better choice, but the better person. He once ran as a post-racial candidate, until Mr. Obama’s past associates like the racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright cast doubt on that.
And why was Gov. Sarah Palin characterized by Mr. Obama as a mere small-town mayor - and by Biden as a “lieutenant governor,” as well as “good-looking” and, given her positions, “a step backward” for women?
The pro-Obama media don’t help, sneering about what Mrs. Palin wears, whether she spends enough time with her kids, and the minutiae of her husband’s past conduct. The public certainly never hears about Mr. Biden’s grooming, how much time he spent with his children when they were young, or his spouse’s private life.
Now a trailing Mr. Obama wants to get tougher and go more negative - in part by raising doubts about Mr. McCain’s age. Mr. Obama’s clumsy reference to putting “lipstick on a pig” raised, rightly or wrongly, charges of sexism, and in the same manner his reference to a stinky “old fish” was connected with John McCain - who, Mr. Obama earlier scoffed, was “losing his bearings.”
Mr. Obama ran ads claiming - with careful wording - that Mr. McCain “lost track” and “couldn’t remember” how many houses he has and that he is out of touch because he has never learned to use e-mail and the Internet (forget that injuries as a prisoner of war make keyboard use difficult for him).
Like it or not, the perception is growing that Team Obama is focusing on Mrs. Palin as a clueless hockey mom from way up north and on Mr. McCain as an old fogy. But that emphasis on sex and age doesn’t become a moralist, especially given Mr. Obama’s own siren warnings that his opponents might resort to racial attacks against him.
Then there were Mr. Obama’s once-lofty progressive principles. Yet no Northern Democratic liberal like Mr. Obama has won the presidency in a half-century. So everyone knew Mr. Obama sooner or later had to move to the center in the general election to win over independents.
For the hope-and-change candidate, those natural readjustments now appear insincere and opportunistic - especially given that he had to move so far from the left to get to the middle. On campaign-finance reform, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, the North American Free Trade Agreement, abortion, capital punishment, guns, Iran, Iraq, the surge and drilling offshore, Mr. Obama has fudged on his earlier positions in the normal way of savvy pragmatists - but not in a manner befitting angelic idealists.
The new Barack Obama probably will recover his temporary setback in the polls. But right now his problem is that disappointed independent voters are catching on that this saintly savior is all too human.
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.