Barack Obama will stand before the Democratic delegates in Denver tonight and accept his party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. It’s a high honor and a humbling opportunity. No doubt the junior senator from Illinois understands that. And no doubt Mr. Obama will give the delegates lots of what they want to hear. If they hoist a celebratory shot of tequila every time Mr. Obama mentions the word change tonight — they may not remember what they heard the next morning.
Clearly the Democratic candidate has deciphered a key truth about the electorate in 2008: Americans want change. Familiarity breeds contempt in governing. And after eight years of President Bush, polls suggest most Americans are ready to move on. So far so good.
But while Mr. Obama’s message may work with the Democratic Party faithful — who all deserve a good night of celebration before the hard work of the general election campaign kicks off — for most Americans, the Illinois senator muddles the message.
Mr. Obama misses the point. For him, change means only this: something other than President Bush. But most Americans want more. They desire a whole new process in Washington. The junior senator from Illinois lacks the experience to grasp that nuance. Signs of Mr. Obama’s confusion are all around.
For example, Americans despise attack politics (although they pay attention to it). They respond well to Mr. Obama’s rhetoric of hope and promise to bring America together. Yet his campaign tactics consistently step on that message. While the Illinois senator and his staff would deny he is running a negative campaign, Mr. Obama’s general election strategy seems premised on linking John McCain to President Bush. But Mr. Bush is not running for a third term. And neither Mr. McCain nor anyone else is responsible for the current president’s decisions and policies. Those are Mr. Bush’s to defend and justify. In fact, the Arizona senator nearly lost the nomination because of his high profile breaks with the president.
Yet whether the “McCain is Bush” analogy fits or not, the Democratic nominee and his surrogates repeat the spurious mantra, hoping that if they repeat it enough, some might believe it. This tactic excites partisans, but creates dissonance with swing voters. Why does the candidate who says he’s all about a “new politics” act like an old partisan hack? It’s hard to bring people together when you’re constantly tearing down your opponents.
Joe Biden’s anticipated role mixes the messages more. The long-time Delaware senator is smart, with deeply held liberal beliefs. He’s a decent guy, but he is known for not holding punches and will play the attack role for the ticket. How does Mr. Obama’s new approach to politics reconcile with his partner becoming a political serial killer? Even Mr. Obama’s policies miss the point. Yes, he is for change — higher taxes, more power for union leadership, expanded environmental regulations and increased government control of healthcare — but that kind of transformation appeals to extreme liberals, not average Americans.
Then there is the strange case of the disappearing “keynote” address by former Virginia Governor Mark Warner. Fox News’ Bill Kristol reported Tuesday night that the Obama campaign moved the much-ballyhooed speech out of primetime because it didn’t attack Mr. McCain enough. Mr. Warner — turns out according to the presumptive Democratic nominee — is a known “bipartisan sympathizer.” The former Virginia governor tried to embrace the kind of change Americans want — Mr. Obama again, due to inexperience or deliberate rejection — decided to stiff arm the real transformation Mr. Warner wanted to offer.
Change is a powerful archetype in American politics. Mr. Obama understands that, but he confuses its application. For him, it only means substituting President Bush’s eight years with new liberal policies. It means allying himself with bigger Democratic majorities in Congress and rolling the Republicans. It means figuring out how to help Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid win, not how to foster bipartisan compromise. In fairness, Mr. Obama does not present himself as a centrist Democrat. But he also lacks the experience, a plan and even the desire to reign in a liberal Congress. His song of change is a left-leaning melody. But those aren’t the lyrics most Americans think of when they sing the “change” song, and once they hear more, they may not like Obama’s rendition.
Gary Andres, who served in the first Bush administration, is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.