Column: The Public Eye: What Obama Needs to Win the Nomination

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday June 26, 2007

In the sixth month of the campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the race has narrowed to New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama. The latest Gallup Poll shows Obama and Clinton in a statistical dead heat, with John Edwards a distant fourth, behind Al Gore—an undeclared candidate. Public perception of Clinton and Obama is strikingly different: Hillary has much higher unfavorable ratings than does Barack. Obama and Clinton are very different people; which one of them carries the day, at the Denver Democratic convention in August of 2008, will hinge on which campaign is best able to utilize the unique strengths of their candidate. 

Obama has a broader appeal than does Clinton. Recent polls indicate that the Illinois senator fares better against potential GOP candidates than does his New York counterpart. Larissa MacFarquhar dissected Barack’s attraction in her fascinating May 7 New Yorker article, describing him as “serene,” “centered,” and “congenial.” She observed that he appeals to many Republicans because he’s non-judgmental, willing to listen to their point of view. MacFarquhar concluded: “Obama has staked his candidacy on union—on bringing together two halves of America that are profoundly divided, and by associating himself with Lincoln.” 

There are two schools of thought about how Obama should position himself to win the Democratic nomination. One argues that Barack needs to adapt his style to what voters have come to expect: he needs to be more political. This opinion contends that while Obama has well-thought-out positions on most issues, he needs to present them more forcefully: be less of an academic and more of a gladiator. At least, that’s the opinion of New York Times contributor Maureen Dowd in her June 6 column. Referring to the candidate as “Obambi,” Dowd harrumphed that the junior senator often disappoints his constituents by being too professorial and observed: “He skitters away from the subtext of political contests, the need to use your force to slay your opponents.” She noted that in the most recent debate among the Democratic candidates, “When Hillary admitted that she had not read the National Intelligence Estimate before voting to authorize the president to go to war, Sen. Obama had a clear shot…[but] Mr. Obama let the opportunity for a sharp comment pass.”  

The other school of thought about Obama campaign strategy argues that Barack should stay the way he is; that America is ready for a president who doesn’t represent politics as usual. Writing in the June 3 New York Times Frank Rich observed, “Americans are exhausted by anger itself and are praying for the mood pendulum to swing … Edgy is out; easy listening is in; style, not content, can be king … [that accounts for] The Democratic boomlet for Barack Obama … his views don’t differ radically from those of most of his rivals, but his conciliatory personality is the essence of calm, the antithesis of anger.”  

Of course, what stands between Obama and the Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton: the first serious female candidate for president. Ms. Clinton is smart, experienced, and tough. And she’s very political. Hillary has assembled a top-flight campaign team that includes her husband, the former president, who’s one of the most remarkable politicians in modern American history. During the next 14 months, Sen. Clinton will battle Barack Obama for each vote in every primary. This contest won’t be conducted in the world of ideas or on the tranquil fields of democratic process. Instead it will take place in TV studios and carefully scripted public appearances; consist of sound bites and bon mots. 

If Maureen Dowd is right then Obama may not be political enough to wrest the 2008 presidential nomination away from Hillary Clinton. Perhaps, Barack’s temperament isn’t cut out for the superficial nature of American presidential politics: the emphasis on form over substance. But, if Frank Rich is right and it’s true that voters are exhausted by the knock-down, bare-knuckles, take-no-prisoners political style of the Dubya years, then America may be ready for a different sort of president: even if that person happens to be a black guy from Chicago with the unlikely name of Barack Hussein Obama. 

Either way, Democrats seem poised to nominate a presidential candidate who is not a white male. According to the Feb. 20 Gallup Poll Americans say they ready to vote for an African American or a woman candidate. While racism and sexism will play a role in the final vote, what’s likely to be the dominant factor is familiarity. Ninety-eight percent of Americans are familiar with Hillary Clinton and 80 percent have strong feelings about her. Obama is less well known: only 80 percent have heard of him and only 56 percent have strong feelings. So, the contest is likely to be decided by the impression Barack makes on voters when he shows up on their TV screens or at their local political event. Here the long-term trend is in Barack’s favor, as his favorability ratings have stayed high since he’s become a candidate. If that trend continues then he’s likely to win the Democratic nomination in 2008. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at