I posed this simple question to a savvy political columnist for a popular black newspaper: Why hasn't Barack Obama run away with this election? Instead, according to the latest Zogby/Reuters poll he's on the slide. Republican rival John McCain now has a not insignificant poll lead over Obama. Even more galling to the Democrats: more voters say that McCain, a Republican of all things, can better manage the economy than Obama. At first glance this makes no sense. Here we have a Democratic presidential candidate with every star aligned for him that a presidential candidate could only dream of. That's a miserably failed Republican presidency, an apparent confused, disoriented, and divided Republican party, a bombed economy, an unpopular war, a cash cow campaign, a fawning media, and charisma to boot.
The columnist's retort to my question was, "Easy, he's black."
The answer was blunt, straightforward, and even a tinge bitter. It's also dead wrong. During the Democratic primary wars Obama racked up a phenomenal string of nearly a dozen victories. This effectively knocked Hillary Clinton out of the contest. He didn't do it solely with black votes. In jost of these primary or caucus victories, there were few black votes to be had. He did it with white voters. They were young and old, and many of them were disenchanted cross over Republicans and independents. From the instant that Obama jumped in the presidential race, polls have been unwavering and showed that many whites were so fed up with Bush's failed policies that they'd overwhelmingly back a Democrat who stood for change, no matter what color.
For a time Obama seemed to be that candidate. When he stopped becoming that candidate, or least perceived as not being that candidate, the seeds of voter doubt crept in. None of this has anything to do with race.
The list of things that caused that doubt is long. He back-flipped and supported the FISA bill. He rejected public financing, blasted the Supreme Court's decision striking down the death penalty for child rape and in the process proclaimed that he's not against "a blanket" prohibition on the death penalty. He showcased his Bible acumen with Christian fundamentalists, backpedaled from his pledge to sit down for talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said he wouldn't support the reinstatement of the fairness doctrine and endorsed white conservative Georgia Rep. John Barrow in his election battle with Regina Thomas, a liberal black state representative.
The most painful Obama flipflop is Iraq. His much-played-up anti-Iraq war stance was the biggest single thing that galvanized liberals and radicals. His new line that he favors a glacially slow, vaguely laid out timetable for a phased withdrawal from Iraq seems not much different than what McCain advocates. Obama, Team Obama, and some pundits tried to put the best face on his shifts and turns and explain them as the correction that he had to make to have any chance at centrist and conservative votes. That part makes sense. Voters don't elect American presidents on the extremes. In the serious stages of the campaign, Republicans that have run to the right move left toward the center and Democrats that have run to the left move right toward the center. Obama is simply following the formula. And besides, some argued, didn't McCain flip flop on some of his positions?
This argument doesn't wash. McCain did not pose himself as a candidate of change. Obama did. The Zogby poll showed that this is the single biggest reason for Obama's poll reversal. It's not exactly a mass exodus, but plainly a lot of liberals don't like his shifts. His support among them plunged more than 12 percent. Another ten percent said that they were undecided. That's a dangerous number, since presumably jost are Democrats.
Obama is making the same potentially lethal stumble that Democratic presidential contenders John Kerry and Al Gore made in keeping McCain in a race that should by all rights be a rout. He ignored his base in the chase after the mythical Democratic votes on the right and conservative center. That base is liberals, young voters, and especially blacks. He stopped talking about change, and the war, and has been virtually mute on failing inner city public schools, criminal justice reform, the Depression-level unemployment among minority youth, gang and drug violence, the HIV/AIDS plague and immigration reform.
He hasn't used the campaign stump as a bully pulpit to talk about them. The continued failure to do this will cost him even more dearly with liberals, young voters, and could even sour some blacks on him. McCain's inch ahead of Obama then has little to do with race. It has everything to do with a candidate who a little more than two months out from November 4 can't make up his mind whether he's Change Obama or Conservative Obama, and risks winding up being neither.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).