Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom VII: Obama Should Just Be Himself

By Dan Gerstein

(NOTE: This was originally published as an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal.)

To listen to many of the antsy poll-following Democrats gathered here in Colorado, you might think you stumbled into a Dear Abby conference instead of a political convention. Just about everyone outside of the Obama true believers has a piece of advice for what the change candidate should change about his campaign to regain his mojo and avoid blowing what should be a sure thing.

Don't be so nuanced, the self-styled strategists say. Be more specific. Tell your story. Take the gloves off. Embrace your inner populist. Put Iraq back in play. And, oh yes, do it all in one pressure-packed speech if possible.

This fretting is understandable to some extent, and not just because we are the party that made the hand-wring its official handshake. By traditional standards Barack Obama is underperforming. And his "different-ness" has injected an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty into this contest.

But this is hardly cause for panic. Indeed, the Democrats who are telling Mr. Obama "I love you, you're perfect, now change" are underestimating the position of fundamental strength he is starting with, and the tremendous advantages his campaign will bring to bear this fall.

This is not just a matter of cyclical political dynamics that strongly favor Democrats (record-setting wrong track numbers, the damage George W. Bush has done to the Republican brand, a major intensity gap among the bases, etc.). Mr. Obama's campaign itself has a substantial structural lead -- the ruthlessly efficient money-raising and field-organizing machine that swamped the Clinton juggernaut is ready to do the same to Mr. McCain -- that current polls just don't account for and won't for some time.

More importantly, the doubting Democrats are misunderstanding the challenge Mr. Obama faces in closing the deal with those crucial voters who want a leader who can move the country in a new direction but are not yet sold on Mr. Obama as the man for that job.

In this, there is a faulty presumption that these winnable, undecided voters are rejecting Mr. Obama's message, and that he needs to say something different to sway them. The fact is, based on all the available polling and a lot of anecdotal evidence, these persuadables simply don't know Mr. Obama yet. In particular, they don't know the Mr. Obama that built such a potent and passionate coalition in the primaries beyond the antiwar left.

They know the Barack Obama who is for getting out of Iraq and who gives a snazzy speech, along with the Barack Obama who prayed with the crazy preacher and who did not wear a flag pin. But they don't know the Barack Obama who was booed by the nation's biggest teachers union for openly advocating taboo reform policies such as merit pay for teachers and charter schools. They don't know the Barack Obama who rejected the cheap gimmick of a national gas tax holiday and trusted the intelligence of voters to see it as such. They don't know the Barack Obama who risked alienating his antiwar base by supporting a compromise plan to reform the Bush warrantless wiretapping program.

They don't know the Barack Obama who in early 2007 worked on a bipartisan basis to pass one of the toughest ethics reform bills in a generation, as well as co-sponsoring legislation with Republican Dick Lugar in 2006 to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. And they certainly don't know the Barack Obama who went into a black church on Father's Day to bluntly chastise his strongest supporters and challenge them to take more responsibility for the children they bring into this world.

Which is to say they don't know what an independent-minded, orthodoxy-challenging, gutsy leader he can and will be, or that he has the strength as well as the judgment that's needed to bring the country together, deliver the new politics he's promising, and be the president for all of America that George W. Bush never could or would be.

That's why one of the few areas Mr. Obama has consistently trailed Mr. McCain is on the critical question of who is a stronger leader. Swing voters know Mr. McCain has a long-established record of taking tough stands, bucking his party and forging bipartisan coalitions (which is why he has been able to get away with the brazen flip-flops he made during the Republican primaries). We're lucky at this point if most of those same voters know Mr. Obama is not a Muslim.

Moreover, that's why I am convinced that Mr. Obama does not need to fundamentally change his message or strategy to win over the undecideds (though a few of the refinements being suggested would be helpful). He mostly just needs to be himself -- or to be more precise, to be more of himself. No reinvention, no repositioning -- just recount the tough stands and political risks he has already taken, relentlessly reinforce those points for the next three months, and ideally look for a few opportunities to walk the change-making walk as we near November.

Some Democrats mistakenly assume this must lead to a cynical, calculated move to the center or a coordinated series of Sister Souljah moments. I am not suggesting that Mr. Obama has to show he's a different kind of Democrat to pass the trust bar, as Bill Clinton did. Rather, I am arguing that because he does not have the kind of leadership record voters are used to in presidential candidates -- or the accumulated "country first" proof points Mr. McCain boasts -- he has to meet a higher burden during the campaign in proving that he is the different kind of politician he claims to be.

Sometimes that means going against the party grain, as Al Gore did by supporting the first Gulf War (he was one of only 10 Senate Democrats to do so). But it can just as easily mean standing on principle the other way, as Tim Kaine did when he stuck to his anti-death penalty convictions while running for governor in strongly pro-death-penalty Virginia.

This is exactly what wins over independents -- being independent. Just ask my mayor Mike Bloomberg, who continues to enjoy eye-popping approval numbers after seven years in one of the country's bluest bastions.

Now one could argue that the Obama campaign could have and should have started emphasizing these points earlier. But that quibble aside, now that the general election campaign is moving into high gear, Mr. Obama's acceptance speech tomorrow night is an ideal time to begin cracking the strength gap, by making the case that he can break the partisan stalemate in Washington and produce progress on the economy, energy, climate change, health care and other serious problems that are begging for national leadership.

And the ideal issue for Mr. Obama to focus on in the speech and beyond, as Mayor Bloomberg can attest, is education. No challenge is more consequential for our country than closing the achievement gap in our urban schools and raising the competitiveness of our workforce. And no special interest has done more to stand in the way of change in our public schools than the teachers unions that dominate Democratic politics.

The unions' chokehold on the party (and by extension the futures of millions of black and Hispanic children) is starting to loosen. One sign of that was the impressive number of progressive leaders who showed up to support Mr. Obama's change agenda and embrace an aggressively pro-innovation set of principles at a forum sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform (full disclosure: the group is a client of mine) here in Denver on Sunday. That group included three of the country's most influential African-American mayors, all rising stars in the party -- Adrian Fenty in Washington, Cory Booker in Newark, and Michael Nutter in Philadelphia.

Imagine what the party's first African-American presidential nominee could do to liberate millions of low-income children of color, not to mention elevate his standing as a change agent, simply by declaring that the era of unequal education is over in America. Mr. Obama doesn't have to, nor should he, attack or even mention the unions. Just do what he has already done (but louder): challenge his own party to change its policies to put children first, and embrace innovative solutions like longer school days and years, high-quality charter schools, and performance pay for teachers.

That's not just change you can believe in. That's change you can bank votes on.

Mr. Gerstein, a Democratic strategist and political commentator based in New York, is the founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters.

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