More on our cultural divide and its implications. (See 1 below.)
Our son was told at his recent meeting about how major candidates get morning security and intelligence briefings and how this pulls them towards the center because they now are exposed to what the president sees and must deal with each day in real time briefings.
The article below discusses Obama's campaign and what he has yet to face.
As for the ad featuring the two blond airheads I did not see it as a racial slur but as a comparison with two empty headed bimbos. So far Obama's failure to flesh out what he means when he speaks and the inanity of what he reveals when he does explain is every reason for comparing him to two dumb blonds or two dumb brunettes or just two dumb bald men.
He has been saying some pretty dumb things and offering some questionable policies when he quits reading from his scripted teleprompter.(See 2 below.)
More on Obama getting tough and responding to McCain's attacks.
Once again I saw Obama's response as evidence he was losing his cool because McCain had punctured his thin skin and his responses suggested an intellectual up tight effort at a sense of humor that resembled more pissy fanny egg laying than anything else. (See 3 below.)
Pickens becomes easy pickings for this writer. Obama apparently supports Picken's ideas. (See 4 below.)
bin Laden's driver may have his license taken away along with his freedom. (See 5 below.)
Rupert Cornwell comes up with a slew of new adjectives defining why Obama may be too cool but in the end sees an overwhelming Obama victory.
If McCain ads can get under Obama's skin by calling him "The One" then how will Obama function in negotiations with Islamic radicals? Perhaps Obama can show the Islamic radicals films of the Berlin multitudes and that will scare them back to being rational.
My advice to Obama is stay cool man!(See 6 below.)
1) A Tyranny of True Believers
By Robert Samuelson
WASHINGTON -- People prefer to be with people like themselves. For all the celebration of "diversity," it's sameness that dominates. Most people favor friendships with those who share similar backgrounds, interests and values. It makes for more shared experiences, easier conversations and more comfortable silences. Despite many exceptions, the urge is nearly universal. It's human nature.
Perhaps America's greatest glory is to rise above this self-absorption. People with many different heritages and beliefs have blended into a cohesive society. At some point, most people subordinate their own firmly held convictions and loyalties to the larger nation. This is more than patriotism; it's the identity of "being an American." But it is in constant tension with the differences that divide Americans.
The latest manifestation of this is what Bill Bishop calls "the Big Sort." By that, he means that Americans have increasingly "clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics." Republican fundamentalists congregate with other Republican fundamentalists. Liberal Democrats herd with other liberal Democrats. Environmentalists decamp to Portland, Ore. Child-centered Republican families move to the exurbs of Dallas and Minneapolis.
The increasing segregation of America by social and cultural values -- not just by income -- helps explain America's growing political polarization, Bishop argues in his new book (naturally: "The Big Sort"). Because prosperity enables more Americans to live where they please, they gravitate to lifestyle ghettos -- and that has significant political implications. Citing studies of social psychology, Bishop says that group consciousness actually amplifies likes and dislikes. Views become more extreme. People become more self-righteous and more suspicious of outsiders.
It's not red and blue states so much as red and blue counties. Bishop -- a recovering newspaper columnist -- collaborated with Robert Cushing, a retired professor of sociology from the University of Texas, to examine voting patterns in presidential elections. They classified counties as politically lopsided if one candidate won by 20 percentage points or more. Their findings are stunning. In the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election, a virtual dead heat, 33 percent of counties qualified. By 2000, also a dead heat, that was 45 percent. In 2004, it was 48 percent. In 1976, it had been as low as 27 percent.
Not surprisingly, many neighborhoods today have mostly Obama or McCain yard signs, not a competitive mixture. Though he dislikes this sorting, Bishop is not contemptuous of it for good reason: He discovered it through personal experience. When he and his wife moved to Austin, Texas, they instinctively selected a neighborhood called Travis Heights. It had people like them, who turned out to be highly liberal. How liberal? Well, in 2000, almost 60 percent of Texans voted for George W. Bush. In Travis Heights, Bush finished third after Al Gore and Ralph Nader. (Despite his views, Bishop's analysis is evenhanded.)
Although Bishop is onto something, I think his argument is slightly overdrawn. Today's residential segregation of like-minded people has ample precedent. For much of the 20th century, urban neighborhoods subdivided by ethnic group. The Irish had their blocks, the Italians theirs. But neighborhoods were sufficiently compressed that they often coexisted within a single county (Bishop's measuring standard). More important, Bishop, like many others, has exaggerated the extent of the polarization. Evidence of growing differences of opinion among the general public -- as opposed to tinier political elites -- is slim.
Consider two decades of polls from the Pew Research Center. On many questions, there was little change. One question asked whether "government should care for those who can't care for themselves." In 1987, 71 percent agreed; in 2007, 69 percent did. Or take immigration. In 1992, when the question was first asked, 76 percent of respondents favored tougher restrictions; in 2007, 75 percent did. On some cultural issues, opinions converged. In 2007, only 28 percent thought school boards should be able to "fire teachers who are known homosexuals," down from 51 percent in 1987. In 1987, only 48 percent thought it was "all right for blacks and whites to date each other"; by 2007, 83 percent did.
It's not that everyone agrees on everything (divisions remain strong on the Iraq War, abortion, gay marriage). But growing polarization predominates among political elites of both left and right. The "Big Sort" of residential segregation is still reshaping the political landscape, though more indirectly. With fewer competitive congressional districts, the real political struggles now often take place in primaries, where activists' views count the most. Candidates appeal to them and are driven toward the extremes.
What Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the vital center" is being slowly disenfranchised. Party "bases" become more important than their numbers justify. Passionate partisans dislike compromise and consensus. They want to demolish the other side. Whether from left or right, the danger is a tyranny of true believers.
2) Obama Hasn't Closed the Deal Yet
By Clarence Page
Some of my Chicago friends who support Sen. Barack Obama already are speaking as if his victory is a done deal. I hate to burst their bubbles, but a nagging question still haunts Obama euphoria: Why isn't he further ahead in the polls?
After all, they gush, his superbly managed campaign of "hope" and "change" seems to be humming along, as strong as the euro against the dollar. The popularity of his rival Sen. John McCain's Republican brand is as weak as a subprime mortgage.
Yet after running as much as nine points ahead of McCain in major polls, Obama's lead has mostly evaporated, especially in key Midwestern industrial swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Why?
I think a big reason is McCain's refusal to be scary or outrageous enough.
Although he has yet to win the hearts and minds of his party's conservative base, Republicans could hardly have picked a better candidate in this, their hour of woe. He has maintained enough of his maverick image to resist Democratic efforts to re-brand him as Bush's third term.
Sure, his policies have flip-flopped like the political equivalent of Twister. But Obama has sashayed toward the political middle, too. That's what candidates do in general election campaigns, especially in the dog days of summer. Voters start paying closer attention in the fall. That leaves time for a lot of late-summer dancing.
A second big reason we journalists love to cite is advisors. McCain hired Steve Schmidt, a protege of Karl Rove who has introduced Rove's famous brand of hardball attacks at Obama's perceived weak points: Suddenly we see Obama's charisma recast as empty-headed "celebrity." His freshness is remade into inexperience. His seriousness is recast as hubris and arrogance. His empathy is recast as "elitist."
Sen. Hillary Clinton tried much of this during the primaries. It didn't put her over the top, but it kept her in the race, especially with white working-class voters over age 50. Boomers and older voters have been less enamored of Obama than the young and college-educated. McCain, too, has gotten back into the race, judging by the polls, just in time to wage a competitive campaign in the fall.
How much of an obstacle is Obama's biracial background? That's hard to say in a society that long ago rendered "racist" to be as much of a taboo word among whites as the N-word is among blacks. As a result, a lot of us look for any sign of coded racial appeals and our imaginations run wild. Some see racism in the juxtaposition of two blondes - Britney Spears and Paris Hilton - in a McCain ad attacking Obama's "celebrity. Republican analyst David Gergen sees the "arrogant" charge against Obama as new racial code for the old-South label "uppity." It does have a familiar ring, doesn't it?
Reporter Amy Chozick in a Wall Street Journal essay stirred up a lot of pundit and blogger buzz by musing that Obama's skinny physique might be a disadvantage in our notoriously overweight nation. She cited a memo to reporters by McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. Explaining McCain's recent attack ad that tries to paint Obama as an empty-suit celebrity, Davis' memo mentions, "Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day." Gee, thanks for giving me a new excuse to skip my workout, Rick.
Smelling a rat -- or maybe fat -- Timothy Noah responded in the Web magazine Slate that skinniness might be a code word for black. "This physical attribute looms large in our nation's history as a source of prejudice," he writes. If so, I wonder if might there be new hope in the sex appeal department for us guys who sport Tony Soprano physiques? Somehow I think not.
Racist or not, we have learned this much from Obama's campaign: Any day in which race is the big topic of discussion is not a good day for Obama. His rapid rise benefited ironically from his ability to "transcend race," we have been told repeatedly. That's another way of saying that he seemed to offer Americans a way to reduce race to something that would not matter anymore. Americans want to believe that race doesn't matter and apparently we will only believe it if we hear a black person say it.
Race alone does not explain Obama's polling gap. Had Colin Powell run, with his military background and other experience, he would not have had the same problems persuading undecided voters that Obama has faced. Obama's best remedy may come from his choice of a running mate. I don't know whom he will pick, but I have a feeling that no skinny, black Harvard grads need apply. I'm sure they will understand why.
3) After McCain Ad, Obama Dumping Defensive Game
By Jason Horowitz
This is the week that Barack Obama got sick of the high road.
“And while Senator McCain’s plan won’t save you at the pump anytime soon, I have to say this, it sure has done a lot to raise campaign dollars,” said Mr. Obama, speaking at the Austintown Fitch High School in Youngstown, Ohio, on the morning of Aug. 5. “Senator McCain raised more than one million dollars from the oil industry just last month, just last month, most of which came after he announced his plan for offshore drilling to a room full of oil executives.”
The crowd booed. Mr. Obama seemed to enjoy it. And a few moments later he had them wildly cheering as he proposed giving them $1,000 each to help alleviate the burden of expensive gas. The money, he thundered from the podium, would come from the windfall profits of the oil companies.
Before he was done, he attacked Mr. McCain for not doing anything to promote alternative energy during his “26 years” in the Senate. The number came off his tongue like an indictment. And he mocked Mr. McCain for saying, on Aug. 4, as Mr. Obama quoted him, “I want to drill here, I want to drill now.”
“I don’t know where he was standing. I mean, I think he was in a building somewhere.” He paused to chuckle with the crowd.
“This plan,” he continued, “will not lower prices today—it won’t lower prices in the next administration.”
The counterattacking communications strategy that got Mr. Obama through his nomination battle against Hillary Clinton is, for the moment at least, gone. It broke down in the face of last week’s withering character attacks from an increasingly disciplined McCain campaign.
The tactical adjustment has been unmissable.
“They are clearly back on offense, which is obviously where you want to be,” said Howard Wolfson, who was communications director for the Clinton campaign.
Hence, after being compared to Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and David Hasselhoff, the Obama campaign stopped complaining about the indignity of it all and brought the focus of the national political conversation around to energy—an issue, like most, on which polls show a lopsided advantage for the Democrats—and John McCain.
“Counterattack has two forms,” said Bob Shrum, the Democratic strategist who was John Kerry’s senior adviser in 2004. “One is direct response, and the other is you open up a new flank, and that is what he is doing here.”
“They lay down a predicate that McCain is responsible for the negativity,” Mr. Wolfson said, “and then are more free to run ads like the one today.”
The ad in question was an unapologetically negative one, released on Aug. 4 and accusing Mr. McCain of being “in the pocket of big oil.”
Two days earlier, on Aug. 2, Mr. Obama telegraphed that a change was coming. Speaking at a press conference in Florida, he said, “Their team is good at creating distractions and engaging in negative attacks and planting doubts about people. We have to make sure that we keep focused on people’s day-to-day concerns. And we’ve got to drive that very hard. And I will keep on driving that hard.”
Mr. McCain has been savaging Mr. Obama as an energy “Dr. No” who is opposed to offshore drilling and all other concrete measures to reduce the burden of expensive gasoline on struggling voters. When Mr. Obama proposed the idea of saving money on gas by making sure car tires were properly inflated, the McCain campaign mocked him as unserious, passing out tire gauges to their press corps as a gag.
This week, Mr. Obama has responded by rolling out an energy plan that calls for tax credits to hasten the transition of the automobile industry to hybrid and plug-in cars; reduced electricity use; and greater use of sustainable fuel to break the country’s dependence on foreign oil. But he also responded to the McCain criticism that he offered nothing immediate by proposing that the windfall profits of oil companies should fund $1,000 rebates to help Americans with gas. And he modified another position, saying he favored selling 70 million barrels of oil from the nation’s strategic reserves to lower the price of gasoline, and that he would consider expanding offshore drilling.
“They’re going around, they’re sending little tire gauges, making fun of this idea as if this is ‘Barack Obama’s energy plan,’” said Mr. Obama, speaking at another campaign event Tuesday afternoon in the gym of the Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea. “Now, two points—one, they know they’re lying about what my energy plan is. But the other thing is, they’re making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption.” He added, “It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant! They think it’s funny that they’re making fun of something that is actually true. They need to do their homework. Because this is serious business. Instead of running ads about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they should go talk to some energy experts and actually make a difference.
“He’s certainly tougher and better than he was in the early part of the primary season,” Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio told The Observer in a brief interview after the event in Berea. “But he does it in almost a playful way. His criticism of Senator McCain today was not mean-spirited. It was direct and it was blunt and you know exactly what he was saying, but it was not done in a way that was angry or hostile.”
The Obama campaign has called on surrogates to help amplify the message. On Monday and Tuesday alone, economic advisers Laura Tyson, Robert Reich and Austan Goolsbee, as well as senior Democratic figures like Bill Richardson, Frederico Pena, Tom Daschle and Ken Salazar, all appeared on television hitting Mr. McCain as part of the energy offensive.
It certainly got the media’s attention.
Early Tuesday morning, the local Ohio television news anchor announced “all eyes are on Youngstown” for Mr. Obama’s discussion of energy at a campaign event at an area high school.
Mr. Obama looked entirely comfortable in the more hostile environment. At around 8:30 a.m., he returned to the Hampton Inn from his morning workout wearing a sweaty white T-shirt and a blue baseball cap. Groggy reporters watched his motorcade as they waited to have their bags sniffed by a police dog in a parking lot. Some checked their BlackBerrys, reading a message from the Democratic National Committee’s announcement of a new Web site, TheNextCheney.com, preemptively attacking Mr. McCain’s choice for vice president.
A few minutes later, Mr. Obama’s black campaign bus, followed by a small van (“Precious Cargo,” it read across the door) and a coach bus carrying the press corps, drove through the state’s economically hard-hit rust belt, past signs for a “Receivership Auction,” and pulled into the Austintown Fitch High School in Youngstown, where the Fitch Falcons practiced on the football field. After introductions by Senator Sherrod Brown and Governor Strickland, Mr. Obama took the stage, where he received an impromptu and day-late serenade of “Happy Birthday” from the roughly 2,000 people in the mixed crowd.
Then he laid into Mr. McCain.
Now wearing a dark suit and blue striped tie, Mr. Obama again defended himself against a McCain ad comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, calling it irreverent toward the concerns of American voters. “I don’t have to deal with that mess,” he said. Later, he spoke about the barrage of character attacks the McCain campaign had launched over the past week. “That’s nothing to be proud of,” he said.
Standing at a podium labeled “New Energy for America,” he sought to convince the crowd that Mr. McCain represented old energy and framed the disagreement over gas and electricity and power as part of a larger debate between old versus new.
The first questioner at the town-hall-style event was less subtle in raising concerns about the age of certain legislators. He said he was bothered by octogenarians in Congress making decisions for the future and asked if Mr. Obama supported term or age limits.
“This is kind of a tricky question for me,” said Mr. Obama. He went on to say that he had colleagues well into their 70s who were doing tremendous work, and that he preferred elections to term limits. “I’m less concerned of what age folks are than what they’re doing.”
Nonetheless, it seemed as if his audiences were latching onto the more critical material.
“It concerned me when he said McCain was in the Senate for 26 years and didn’t do anything. Why should we think he would all of a sudden do something as president,” said Monica Holland, a 40-year-old recruiter for General Motors from nearby Austintown. “That was a red flag for me.”
Judith Stanger, 70, a retired teacher from nearby Boardman, also took a positive view of the Obama campaign’s more personal, age-based assault on Mr. McCain.
“I heard that on TV yesterday,” she said. “It’s every bit as valid as the tripe McCain has been saying. I mean, Moses parting the Red Sea? Please.”
(She was referring to one of the McCain campaign’s messiah-themed ads mocking the hype surrounding Mr. Obama.)
But Ms. Stanger also said she hoped Mr. Obama would continue to ignore what she called his opponent’s “low” attacks and talk about issues.
“I don’t think he dares to lower himself to their level,” she said, earnestly.
4) A boon for Pickens, not for America
By Gal Luft
T. Boone Pickens' proposals to wean the country off foreign oil could provide more benefit to Iran than to the U.S.
At a time of economic decline and record-high gas prices, there is something refreshing in an oilman turning into one of the nation's leading advocates of renewable energy. This could explain why T. Boone Pickens' multibillion-dollar efforts to reduce America's oil dependence and develop clean energy have garnered so much public attention.
Pickens is right to suggest that America's oil dependence is a source of economic ruin and that Congress must act to stop the biggest transfer of wealth in human history. But Pickens stands to benefit from his own campaign -- and his proposal could do more damage than good to U.S. energy security.
Pickens' proposal involves a California ballot initiative to provide $5 billion in subsidies for developing clean-energy fuels on top of a $58-million public relations campaign to reduce America's oil dependence through wind power. Not coincidentally, the Texas oilman is heavily invested in natural gas and wind power.
The Pickens plan promises to dramatically reduce oil use by shifting the transportation sector from gasoline-powered cars and trucks to natural-gas-powered vehicles. This would allegedly reduce oil imports by more than 30% and would supposedly save the U.S. economy $300 billion that otherwise would end up in the coffers of oil-rich foreign countries. According to the plan, wind energy would substitute for natural gas, now generating 20% of the nation's electricity, freeing natural gas to power a third of the vehicles in the U.S.
There is nothing wrong with wind power. On the contrary, it is one of the cheapest ways to generate renewable power. But since only 2% of U.S. electricity is generated from oil, wind power (as well as nuclear power, solar energy and other renewable power sources often touted by politicians and pundits) would do nothing to reduce U.S. oil dependence unless we start using electricity to power our vehicles.
Pickens' assertion that increased use of wind power would displace natural gas is based on wishful thinking. Our energy system is not a Lego game -- one piece can't replace another at whim. Even if 78 other billionaires were willing to follow Pickens' footsteps and build a 4,000-megawatt wind farm -- that's the number needed to displace the current electricity production from natural gas -- there's no way to guarantee that natural gas would be the only energy source that would be displaced by all those turbines. Why not coal, or solar?
Furthermore, implementation of the Pickens plan might actually tie more natural gas to the power sector. Wind is an intermittent source of power -- the wind doesn't blow 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- and until and unless our electricity grid has sufficient power storage capacity, utilities counting on wind need to have backup power plants that can be powered up to fill in the gaps when the wind does not blow. This back-up power is today generally provided with natural gas.
Pickens also claims that a shift from oil to natural gas would strengthen U.S. national security. But contrary to Pickens' proclamations, in relation to its need, the U.S. is not rich in natural gas. Just as with oil, the U.S. consumes 23% of the world's natural gas but it only has 3% of the world's reserves. Its reserve-to-production ratio is less than 10 years. At last month's Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing (in which both Pickens and I testified), he invoked a recent Deutsche Bank study, "From Shale to Shining Shale," which claims that there are massive reserves of gas shale in the U.S. Just like oil shale, such unconventional energy sources hold great promise. But their recovery costs are still high, and their existence has not been able to suppress the rising price of either oil or natural gas.
A shift to natural gas could even weaken U.S. national security: More than 60% of the world's reserves are concentrated in five countries -- Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- countries that are already engaged in discussions on the establishment of an OPEC-like natural-gas cartel. Shifting from dependence on one authoritarian regime's energy source to another's is like jumping from the frying pan to the fire. It's also the best gift the U.S. can give Iran at a time when it should be working to weaken Tehran economically.
At a time of great public anxiety about our energy future, Congress should focus on policies that would grant Americans true energy independence, rather than replace one dependence with another. Instead, Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate have preferred to follow up on Pickens' plan with bills to increase the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. Such initiatives would certainly be a boon for Pickens, but not for America.
5) Osama bin Laden's driver convicted in war-crimes trial
By Carol Rosenberg
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — A U.S. military jury Wednesday convicted Osama bin Laden's driver of war crimes -- making him the first war-on-terror captive convicted by contested tribunal at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The jury announced the verdict against Salim Hamdan at 10:16 a.m.
It cleared him of the more serious crime of conspiracy but convicted him of multiple counts of providing material support for terror.
Conviction can carry a maximum life imprisonment.
The six U.S. officers who convicted him next will deliberate on his sentence.
The jury got the case Monday after extensive closing arguments. It deliberated a total of 6½ hours Monday and Tuesday at this U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
Hamdan, 37, was captured in November 2001 in Afghanistan by allied U.S. troops. He had two surface-to-air missiles in his car when captured and has been held at Guantánamo since May 2002.
Attorneys presented the war crimes case and Hamdan's defense over the past two weeks. Conviction could carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The president of the jury, a Navy captain, led the panel back into the deliberation room at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday behind a courtroom carved out of an abandoned air terminal. Besides the Navy captain, the panel comprises two colonels and three lieutenant colonels from the Army, Air Force and Marines.
In his closing, case prosecutor John Murphy cast Hamdan as an al Qaeda co-conspirator, saying he'd served as bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan from 1996 until his capture. He accused the Yemeni of rising through the ranks to become a trusted bodyguard and key cog in the infrastructure of the international terror group.
''He is an al Qaeda warrior,'' Murphy said Monday, pointing a finger at the accused, who sat at the defense table in a traditional Yemeni skullcap, white robe and sports jacket atop his tan prison camp trousers.
Soon after deliberations began, the military disclosed, Hamdan was allowed a one-hour phone chat with his wife in their native Yemen. The Monday night call was his fourth call home in nearly seven years of U.S. detention.
Testimony at trial, based on interrogations of Hamdan, described him as overhearing bin Laden plot ''operations,'' then opting not to quit his job after realizing the boss was responsible for the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Hamdan's military and civilian defense lawyers say the Pentagon has made a scapegoat of their client, prosecuting him in place of the still at-large bin Laden.
They also deride the war court, called a military commission, because Congress permits it to use evidence obtained from 18 months of interrogations of their client — from Afghanistan to Guantanamo — without the benefit of a warning against self-incrimination or getting an attorney.
Hamdan's charge sheet lists two counts of conspiracy and eight counts of providing material support for terrorism — from allegedly serving as a driver to allegedly serving as a bodyguard to allegedly trying to deliver surface-to-air missiles to the enemy.
6)Rupert Cornwell: Cool guy, Barack. But could he be too cool for US voters?
The Democrat candidate can come across as cerebral and fastidious, even supercilious
We still have three months to go before Americans cast a vote in one of the most important Presidential elections of the modern era. But a gnawing unease assails Democrats across the land. Why isn't Barack doing better?
Everything, after all, is running their way. Polls show Democrats with a double digit lead over Republicans in terms of basic support. It would be astonishing if Obama's party did not make big gains in both the Senate and House this autumn, in the congressional elections on the presidential undercard.
If ever circumstances were propitious to a Democratic White House landslide, it is this year: huge economic insecurity, an unpopular war and an even more unpopular president, coupled with a philosophical shift away from the "markets know best", deregulatory approach, that marked the Republican era now approaching its end. Big government is back in fashion.
The candidate, moreover, is fresh from a foreign tour that banished many doubts about Obama's command of foreign policy. He made no gaffes – indeed his Iraq withdrawal strategy was endorsed by prime minister Maliki himself. Passing a crucial test, he looked and spoke like a president. And yet, despite everything, he leads John McCain in the polls by a whisker, if at all. Key swing states – Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, for instance – are a toss-up.
And it's not as if McCain has been playing a blinder. Yes, he's run a couple of effective ads, one portraying Obama as a vacuous celebrity like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, the other a web-only production that mocks Obama as "The One" (as in messiah). McCain has also extracted more political mileage, so to speak, from soaring petrol prices. But he remains a listless speaker, who sets no audiences on fire. More than once, he's made slips that have you wondering about his greatest weakness, his age.
So what is happening? A clue to the answer came last week. Obama was on Capitol Hill, at a closed meeting with senior Democrats in the House. He told them, according to accounts afterwards, that the success of his trip had proved he was the US leader that a world yearning to re-embrace America was waiting for.
That's probably true. But such sentiments do not go down well out in the heartland of his own country – not, for instance, among the tens of thousands of Harley-Davidson devotees gathered for the annual bikers' jamboree in Sturgis, South Dakota, whom McCain went courting on Monday evening.
At one level, the competing images tap into that hoary old dictum about US presidential elections (one no less true for being hoary) that, all other things being equal, Americans tend to vote for the "regular guy", the candidate they'd rather have a beer or a coffee with. Measured by this standard, McCain versus Obama is currently no contest. For all his recent conversion to Republican orthodoxy, in the public mind the Arizona senator is still the congenial maverick, gossipy and indiscreet, ruled by his heart, not his head.
For that reason too, the press still love him, even as it wearies of its once unquestioning love affair with Obama, complaining about the latter's hyper-controlling campaign staff, and the lack of access to the candidate. Much the same goes for the legions of poorer white Democrats who once voted for Hillary and still can't come to terms with the man who defeated her.
Obama is cool, maybe too cool. To the public as well as the media, he can come across as cerebral and fastidious, even supercilious. As candidates must, he braves pancake houses and diners. But he visibly disdains fast food – and in a land where obesity is king there is, according to his doctor, not an ounce of excess body fat on his body. "Too fit to be President?" ran the Wall Street Journal headline. The question was by no means facetious. However famous his face, however much has been written about him, Obama remains largely a mystery. His life narrative is simply too exotic, too far from the mainstream.
However, if presidential campaigns seem to go on for ever, their very length has the redeeming virtue of allowing such unfamiliarity to be removed. That is why these final three months of the campaign are so important for Obama.
But Democrats shouldn't worry too much. This is a watershed election, akin to 1932 which ushered in a Democratic era, and 1980, when Ronald Reagan's victory opened the conservative era that is now ending. On that occasion, Reagan and Carter were neck and neck until late in the day. Finally, though, the country decided it could trust Reagan, and a Republican landslide followed. The same can happen this time for the Democrats – and Obama.