Thursday, August 28, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom IX: How Obama Can Woo the Oldouts

By Dan Gerstein

From my perspective, Obama’s main challenge for his acceptance speech and for rest of the campaign is to win the trust of those swing voters who doubt that he is ready to be president and in particular that he is capable of delivering the change he is promising. This fairly sizable bloc of undecideds and leaners — what I call the Oldouts -- are eager for new leadership that will move the country in a new direction, but they are not yet sold that Obama has the strength to break through the partisan stalemate that has been gripping Washington for the Bush-Clinton years and to actually produce progress on jobs, energy, health care, education, climate change, etc. And there is a real danger that these independents and moderates from both parties will default to McCain just because he is a known quantity and a safe fall-back if Obama fails to show he is up to the job.

So with that challenge in mind, here are four things that Obama should do — and not do -- with his address Thursday night:

First, Obama has to focus on persuading the Oldouts that he has the strength as well as the judgment that's needed to change Washington and get the country moving again. To do this, Obama should go beyond telling his quintessentially American story and proving he is not the elitist alien creature he has been caricaturized to be — which is an essential first step -- and offer meaningful, specific evidence to back up his claims that he is and will be an effective change agent. The fact is, most swing voters don’t know the many different ways that Obama has challenged Democratic orthodoxy, taken tough stands and serious risks out of principle, or built bipartisan coalitions to get things done. Obama can go a long way towards winning the confidence of these voters by filling this knowledge deficit, which will in turn help him crack the strength gap that is holding him back in the polls.

Second, on a related note, Obama should look to throw a few political bones to those independent and Republican Oldouts who fear that Obama deep down is just another Kennedy liberal. One of the reasons Obama broke through the cliche clutter with his 2004 convention speech was his healing appeal for national unity and an end to the partisan food-fighting in Washington. Now that Obama must speak to a broader general election audience, he should remind swing voters why so many of them were drawn to him in the first place — and ideally give them a few new reasons to believe that he will be the President for all America that George Bush never could or would. For example, don’t just promise to appoint a Republican or two to your cabinet, announce that Chuck Hagel or another prominent GOPer will be part of your national security team. Or, conversely, embrace an idea that the public naturally associates with Republicans, much like Bill Clinton did with welfare reform, and pledge to work on a bipartisan basis to enact it.

Third, given that Obama’s primary audience has to be the unsold swing voters who will decide the election, he should bring his soaring rhetoric down to earth and be far more concrete in describing his vision, his ideas for solving the big problems Washington has punted on for years, and not least of all, how he is going to achieve the change he is promising. Just as they don’t know much about Obama’s character, most of the swing voters he needs to persuade know little about his plans for the country — a complaint we have been hearing with increasing frequency over the last couple months. This speech is a prime opportunity to introduce voters who have not really been engaged with the campaign to his innovative and realistic solutions — and to contrast them them with stale, Bushian agenda McCain is running on. This is not an argument for another yawn-inducing laundry list of policy proposals, but for highlighting a few big priority issues and a few standout ideas that will help you connect with voters who are eager for fresh, independent-minded thinking in Washington.

Fourth, Obama should not beat around the Bush in attacking McCain — especially on his supposed strength, national security. The Obama campaign knows that their best hope of cementing their structural advantage in this election cycle is to hang the Bush albatross around McCain, and frame the race as a clear choice, with the alternative being more of the same polarization, division, destructive economic and foreign policies that Bush brought us. Again, most voters don’t know how much John McCain has changed since he won their respect eight years ago, and this speech is prime opportunity to flesh out Hillary’s twins attack and make it stick. But there is another important strategic reason to whack the Mac — it’s a powerful way for Obama to communicate his toughness and show that he is willing to fight for what he believes in. The ideal place to start this offensive is on the war on terror — slam Bush and McCain for failing to capture Osama bin Laden, diverting our attention from al Qaeda by prosecuting a wasteful, unnecessary war in Iraq, and making us less safe in the process.

Gerstein, a former speechwriter and communications director for Senator Joe Lieberman, is the founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters

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