Is Barack Obama too cool to be elected president?
That's what some of his own supporters are wondering after the first presidential debate. We aren't talking here about the kind of cool that makes you one of the most popular kids in school.
The fear that Sen. Obama lacks those tendencies has been an undercurrent among Democrats for many months, and the concern has oozed to the surface since last week's debate against Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Their fear is that Sen. Obama took too many punches, delivered too few of his own, and explained more than battled.
Just one example: Lincoln Mitchell, writing on the Huffington Post blog, bemoaned the fact that Sen. Obama didn't challenge the McCain assertions during last week's debate that he was "naive" about the ways of the world. "By not fighting this label," Mr. Mitchell wrote, "Obama seemed to almost concede the point. Nobody wants a naive president; and Obama should have challenged this label -- especially because it is wrong."
Moreover, Democrats are anguished that Sen. Obama acknowledged that Sen. McCain was right on some points so often that Republicans instantly put out a television ad pointing out the fact.
It's an understandable concern for Obama partisans, and perhaps Sen. Obama might be better off if he shed some of that natural cool and became more of a jouster.
But that analysis also misses an important point. It's almost always a mistake for a candidate to campaign as something other than what he really is. It's probably a particular mistake this year, given the public mood of 2008.
Consider some history on this point. There seems little doubt that the cerebral Al Gore made a mistake by trying to turn himself into a fire-breathing populist in the 2000 presidential campaign. When Michael Dukakis's 1988 campaign tried to make him appear to be the kind of hawk he wasn't by propping him up in a tank, the result was a disaster.
Ronald Reagan's friends complained regularly that he got into trouble when his handlers overscripted him and wouldn't "let Ronnie be Ronnie," and they were probably right. On the other side of this campaign, Sen. McCain, arising from the ashes after his campaign virtually collapsed in 2007, reverted to the unscripted and independent-sounding campaigner he had been.
The jury is still out on the more recent controlled version of the McCain campaign, though it's noteworthy that his late-summer surge came when he made a McCain-like unconventional decision to choose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. And now that Gov. Palin's image is picking up some tarnish, there's a quiet let-Sarah-be-Sarah sentiment developing among Republicans who think she has been so tightly controlled to prevent mistakes that her natural appeal has been stifled.
Which brings us to Sen. Obama. The fact is that he is a cool customer. He has been known to shoo to the back of his campaign bus his own aides when they were feverishly working their BlackBerrys and obsessing about late-breaking gossip and poll results. He tends to answer debate questions by analyzing the problem under discussion at some length before winding around to saying what he would do about it. He doesn't seem to like the close-quarters jabbing of a standard political debate, which showed whether his foe was Hillary Clinton or Sen. McCain.
Those are the characteristics that have some Democrats wondering whether they see in Sen. Obama the shadows of another Illinois politician, Adlai Stevenson, rather than the second coming of Bill Clinton. Democrats are particularly sensitive on this point because they have concluded that both Mr. Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 lost because they allowed themselves to be turned into punching bags during their campaigns.
But this is 2008, and Sen. Obama is a different candidate. From the outset, his campaign persona was built on the idea that, as a young politician and a newcomer to Washington, he stood outside the conventional politics of the past two decades. The appeal of Sen. Obama in many ways lies in the notion that he is a "postpartisan" leader who isn't held hostage by the partisan attack machines that many Americans think their country's political institutions have become.
There's reason to wonder whether Sen. Obama is as postpartisan as his rhetoric suggests, but the point is that the image has worked to his benefit. It also happens to have been the very image that helped Sen. McCain win his party's nomination this year, which tells us something about the mood of the country right now. There is palpable anger afoot in the land, and it seems to be directed at the way politics is practiced as much as anything else. Let no attack go unanswered is one rule of politics; to thine own self be true may be an equally powerful one this year.
Wall Street Journal article located here
Write to Gerald F. Seib at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image from http://www.britannica.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2008/01/obama1.jpg
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