Obama: The Safe Candidate *Updated*

Debates, US Elections, US Politics

*Update* Krauthammer sees what I see.

I don’t know if this was part of the plan all along or if John McCain made it happen, but what seems to have happened over the last couple of weeks is that the most damaging talking point against Barack Obama has been rendered impotent. Starting in the primaries and continuing through the summer, the one argument against Obama that was difficult to counter was that he was dangerous. He was unknown, we were told, and couldn’t be trusted. He was untested, and we needed a steady, strong, and experienced hand in the White House. He was a radical — look at his preacher and that guy he served on a board with once whose occupation he can’t even remember. This idea was hard to fight because it wasn’t based on any debatable facts but on impressions, hunches, and intuition. But over the last three weeks, something has changed.

John McCain and Barack Obama debate in Mississippi

John McCain and Barack Obama debate in Mississippi

First, John McCain’s ride into Washington to save the day seems to have had the exact opposite of the intended effect. When I first heard him announce it, I thought it rang false but that many people would buy it. Folks love that, right? He’s a hero and a maverick and he can get things done. His announcement of the suspension contained severe language warning of the dire consequences of inaction. The crisis is so huge that… we must suspend the debates. Maybe that’s when the general public called bullshit. Or maybe it was when he didn’t actually hurry back to Washington at all. It began to look like he was taking a political gamble with a serious public crisis. He was baiting Obama. Would Obama jump on the wagon and implicitly concede that McCain was the leader? And if he didn’t, McCain must have believed, he would also be allowing McCain to own the leader role. But what hapened? Obama didn’t hurry with him to Washington or suspend his campaign or even agree to postpone the debate. He very calmly made the case for not storming Washington. It made sense — neither he nor McCain were on the committees involved in the negotiations, their involvement would inject campaign politics, they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Calm, even, and sure. That’s what people saw.

McCain took a huge gamble by asking the president to convene a meeting of leaders, and he lost when reports of the meeting came out that showed how contentious and discordant it was, and that McCain had not taken the lead. Another report from the meeting indicated that Obama had spoken for the Democrats and had led much of the discussion. The word that comes to mind is “backfire”.

Calling for a suspension of the debates was a huge gamble which he subsequently lost when, after proclaiming that he would not debate unless a deal was reached, he showed up anyway with no deal in place. At the debate, he seethed and looked barely able to conceal his contempt for his rival, who was looking calm, steady and confident. Polling before and after the debates indicated that voters saw through McCain’s campaign suspension stunt and saw a credible president in Obama.

Obama saw a slight boost in support after the debate. Thirty-five percent of voters said McCain’s efforts in solving the economic crisis have been harmful, while only 15 percent say that about Obama’s role. Obama has made inroads with independent voters, who were almost split between the candidates in the poll’s Sept. 11 results. The Democrat is leading in post-debate support from independents by about 30 percentage points.

Watching the focus group dials on CNN during the debate, you could see that voters were beginning to believe their lying eyes. When McCain talked about suspending his campaign, it fell flat. As did calling himself a “maverick” and every “Senator Obama just doesn’t understand” line. Voters looked at Obama and must have thought, well, actually, it looks like he DOES understand. Indeed the dials said so when he answered.

Now fast forward to last night’s debate. Joe Biden filled the hall with his command of the issues of the day. He was forceful, likable, and most of all, he made us feel like he could totally be president if he had to be. By contrast, Sarah Palin, though very likable, came across as risky. She had no real command of the issues. You couldn’t picture her as president if, heaven forbid, it ever came to that.

Obama no longer looks like a very risky or untested choice. McCain appears erratic and a gambler. Palin seems to have a huge learning curve and does not appear to do well under the pressure of, say, a Katie Couric interview. It looks like, based on the last few weeks, the safe bet is on Obama-Biden. Anything could happen, of course, between now and election day. An Osama bin Laden video, perhaps. But for now, the meme that Obama is risky has been effectively shut down.

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