Articles

Dear Senator Obama...

May 04, 2008
Four months ago, you took the political world by storm in Iowa. The media were agog. They called your words "gorgeous," your victory "a message to the world." You "made history" and Americans could "look at ourselves with pride" in "a moment to marvel."

Times change. The six weeks leading into Pennsylvania were difficult. You excelled at raising money and gaining endorsements, but got weaker as big problems emerged. Before you can fix them, you must understand them. In Pennsylvania, you won only 30 percent among Catholics and 29 percent among white working-class voters. Defections like this elect Republicans.

Even liberal commentators who adore you warn you can't win with a McGovern coalition of college students and white-wine sippers from the party's left wing. Saying small-town voters cling to guns, faith and xenophobia because of economic bitterness hurt you; it reinforced the growing sense you don't share Middle America's values. So did asking about the price of arugula in Iowa, dismissing the "true" patriotism of people who wear a flag lapel pin, being "friendly" (as your chief strategist, David Axelrod, put it) with a violent, unrepentant '60s radical and having a close relationship with an angry pastor who expressed anti-American sentiments.

You argue the son of a single working mom can't be an elitist. But it's not where you start in life; it's where you end up. After a prestigious prep school, Columbia and Harvard, you've ended up with the values of Cambridge, San Francisco and Hyde Park. So you're doing badly in Scranton, Youngstown and Erie, where ordinary Americans live.

Here are six suggestions for what to do.

1. Your stump speech is sounding old and out of touch. You made a mistake by not giving the bored press (and voters) something new last Tuesday when you lost Pennsylvania. Come up with something fresh that's focused on the general election. Recapture the optimistic tone of your start and discard the weary, prickly and distracted tone you've taken on.

2. When you get into trouble, pick one, simple explanation. And stay with it. Take the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. You said you weren't sitting in church when he said those ugly things. Two days later, you excused him, saying his comments didn't give "a well-rounded portrait" of him. Two days after that, you condemned his statements as "not only wrong but divisive" but still couldn't "disavow him" any more than you could your grandmother. Ten days later, you implied if Wright hadn't retired, you might have left his church. It would have been better to say from the start that Wright's words were wrong and offensive and you should have spoken out earlier. The applause would have been deafening.

3. Your lack of achievements undercuts your core themes. It's powerful when you say America is not "Red States or Blue States but the United States." The problem is, you don't have a long Senate record of working across party lines. So build one. In the coming months, say that you'll appoint Republicans to your cabinet and get a couple to say they'd serve. Highlight initiatives Republicans can agree on. Most importantly, push for a bipartisan issue now before Congress.

4. You speak of the "fierce urgency of now" that calls leaders to confront important challenges. Sounds good, but people are asking, what urgent issues have drawn your enormous talents? It's counterintuitive, but spend less time campaigning and more time working the Senate. Pick a big issue and fight hard for it. Win or lose, you'll give your argument substance.

5. Stop the attacks. They undermine your claim to a post-partisan new politics. You soared when you seemed above politics, lost altitude when you did what you criticize. Attacks are momentarily satisfying but ultimately corrode your appeal.

6. To answer growing questions about your inexperience, people need to know, in concrete and credible ways, what they can expect from you as president. That's missing now. And don't think those position papers written by academics and posted on the Web do the job. They have a check-the-box quality to them. Americans want to see your passion and commitment to things they care about, in ways that give them confidence you're up to the job. They can smell when something is poll-tested and focus-grouped, not from the heart. Also, you can't bluff anymore like you did on "Meet the Press" in October 2006. (You weren't officially running for president yet, but it's still telling.) Tim Russert pointed to the passage in "The Audacity of Hope" that says "no small number of government programs don't work as advertised," and he asked for an example. You cited Medicaid and Medicare, saying: "I think that there's no doubt that we could squeeze more efficiencies out of those systems there. Simple example, we don't use electronic billing for Medicare and Medicaid providers. Now there's no other business on earth that still has people filling out paper forms to get reimbursed, especially for a system that large. We could drastically reduce the costs of those systems."

The only problem is, the Bush administration, building on the good work of the Clinton administration, already put in place in 2003 a regulation that requires electronic billing of Medicaid and Medicare. Since then, all but a handful have been electronic. You won't get a pass on bluffing anymore. You'll have to do both your homework and occasionally something that's difficult for you (and most other politicians): admit you don't know.

You have talent, intelligence and tapped into something powerful early in your campaign. But running for president is unlike anything you've ever done. You're making mistakes and making people worry that you're an elitist. So while you'll almost certainly win the nomination, Democrats are nervous about the fall. You've given them reasons to be.

FULL ARTICLE: http://www.newsweek.com/id/134322
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