Obama and the hanging lantern

DENVER - We all know about Barack Obama’s strengths as a candidate, notably his eloquence in stadium settings, and his gift for stirring the mutitudes. So it’s no surprise that he basked with ease last night amidst the silver strobes of the flashbulbs that detonated from all corners of the field. As the best performance artist since Bill Clinton, he was expected to excel at his craft, and he did.

Far more interesting, during this historic acceptance speech, was the way he sought to tackle his perceived weaknesses and convert them to strengths, thereby (he hopes) erasing some of the image baggage that has weighed him down these many months. It’s like he went in with a list of tasks, with the aim of checking them off one by one. There’s an old political adage about how it’s smart for a politician to acknowledge vulnerabilities, either directly or implicitly – as the saying goes, to “hang a lantern on your problems” – if only to demonstrate self-awareness and make the necessary corrections.

Amidst the spectacle, with the audience undulating like wheat in the wind, that’s precisely what Obama set out to do. For instance:

1. To counter the skeptics’ complaint that he is cool and aloof and bloodless and professorial and elitist, he opened his speech with a long populist paean to the average Joe. All this week, Democratic strategists had been urging Obama to make it clear, with requisite passion, that he’s on the side of struggling families, that he feels their pain. So he quickly offered up scenarios of an Ohio woman who is “one illness away from disaster” and a laid-off Indiana man who watched his factory equipment shipped off to China (not so coincidentally, Ohio and Indiana are red states that he is determined to turn blue)…and then he yelled, “Enough!” to convey that he’s mad as hell about the past eight years and he’s not gonna take it anymore. Just like your basic ticked-off American. (His stadium fans rocked the bleachers with so much force, it sounded like a freight train thundering down the tracks. But that was to be expected. The question is, did the empathy section of his speech play well in the proverbial small-town living room?)

2. To counter the notion that he’s foreign and exotic ("I don't fit the typical pedigree"), he framed his own life story as no different than the lives of other Americans. When he sees the faces of the young military veterans, “I see my grandfather.” When he sees a young student sleeping three hours before working a night shift, “I think about my mom” and her early deprivations. When he hears a woman talk about her business start-up problems, “I think about my grandmother” who started as a secretary and ended up in middle management. When he talked about pay equity for women, he said he also was thinking of his daughters. When he talked about cracking down on insurance companies that discriminate against the sick, he said he was thinking of the final illness that killed his mother. He even hung a lantern on the dreaded C-word, bringing it up on his own: “I don’t know what kinds of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine.”

3. To counter the suspicion that he’s just another tax-loving liberal, he stressed his pledge to “cut taxes – cut taxes – for 95 percent of all working families,” giving it that extra beat.  And he said that an activist federal government will work effectively only if it is lean and mean: “I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work, and making the ones we do need work better and cost less, because we can’t meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy.”

4. To counter the notion that he is ill-prepared to be commander-in-chief, Obama framed his judgment on crucial national security decisions as superior to McCain’s – particularly with respect to the genesis of war in Iraq. It’s a Karl Rove credo that a candidate should directly challenge an opponent’s perceived strength, and convert it to a weakness. Obama probaby can’t succeed to that extent; he can’t trump McCain in the realm of foreign policy, if only because his Washington tenure is only three years old. However, by contending last night that he has instinctively better judgment on how to keep America safe - “You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq” - he signaled that he intends to at least trim the traditional Democratic deficit on these issues.

5. To counter the complaint that he’s all poetry and no program, Obama spent considerable time in programmatic mode, talking about early childhood education,  and $150 billion for wind power and solar power and biofuels, and erasing capital-gains taxes for small business, and about lowering health care premiums. The aim was not to get into the weeds on details; that would kill a convention speech. The aim was to ensure that viewers at home noticed he was talking prose, not poetry.

6. To counter fears among his party brethren that he’s insufficiently street smart while under attack, Obama took a knife to the “maverick” McCain image and essentially painted his opponent as a clueless, out of touch, demagogic Bush loyalist. And perhaps Obama’s deepest slash came so fast that many listeners missed it entirely. It happened in this sentence: “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next commander-in-chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.” The key word was “temperament.” If I’m reading this right, Obama is signaling that if McCain wants to get down and dirty on the command issue, he is prepared to talk about McCain’s temper, which is famous in Washington. (Witness this January ’08 remark about McCain: "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me." That’s from Thad Cochran, Republican senator from Mississippi, who has known McCain for three decades.)

All told, did Obama, by hanging a lantern on his problems, follow up with the right correctives? We probably won’t know for a few weeks (see part two of this post). The people who rocked the stadium are already true believers, as are the millions who have signed on to Obama’s massive grassroots project (arguably the most underreported story of the season). But millions of persuadable voters are still hanging back. What matters most is whether his acceptance speech will ultimately be remembered as a key marker on the road to success, dispelling the doubts that have considerably slowed his step. Or something else entirely, something the Democrats would rather not contemplate.

It has become a tradition, at national conventions, to speculate on the size of the presidential candidate’s “bounce.” The gold standard was set by Bill Clinton in 1992, when the newly-annointed Democratic nominee busted out of his convention, and rolled by bus across the swing-state heartland, buoyed by a hike of 16 percentage points in the Gallup poll.

So naturally, everybody wonders how big the Obama bounce is likely to be. Surely he’s going to surf a big wave, in the wake of his unified convention, right?

Wrong.  The fact is, Obama will barely see any upward bounce.

Yet, as the pollsters tell me, this has nothing to do with Obama or his convention. It has everything to do with the unique logistics of this particular convention season – starting with the fact that the Republicans are staging their quadrennial meeting right after the Democrats break camp, with only a holiday weekend in between. This makes it impossible for the pollsters to take any meaningful readings.

Mark Blumenthal, a survey expert who hosts the popular website pollster.com, remarked here the other day, “The media keeps writing about ‘bounces,’ about ‘average bounces’ and ‘typical bounces,’ but this year we don’t have the same kinds of circumstances that we’ve always had before,” when conventions were typically scheduled many weeks apart.

“You can’t measure for a bounce this time,” he said, “unless you’re going to scientifically survey enough people at one o’clock in the morning after Obama speaks, and that’s just not going to happen.” Indeed, several big polling operations are not even bothering to survey at all during the Labor Day holiday weekend.

The Republicans know all this, of course, but they would never say so publicly. Quite the contrary, their current strategy is to pre-spin the expectations game by contending that Obama should be deemed a flop if he fails to bounce like Bill Clinton did, or like Jimmy Carter did in 1976 (nine points up), or Ronald Reagan did in 1980 (eight), or George W. Bush did in 2000 (eight again). In fact, over the past four decades, Democratic candidates have averaged a 6.2-point bounce; Republicans, 5.3.

But you can’t fault the Republicans for ignoring the unique ’08 circumstances; all is fair game in politics, especially the battle to set the bar.

Hence the McCain campaign memo last week, which purported to predict: “Obama will see a significant bump, and (we) believe it is reasonable to expect nearly a 15-point bounce out of a convention in this political environment.” Hence the claim by GOP pollster David Winston earlier this week that the Democratic convention “needs to give Obama a bounce – a big bounce.” Hence the erroneous claim by ex-Clinton adviser/GOP-friendly pundit Dick Morris about how “everybody agrees” that Obama will leave Denver with “as much as a 10-point lead or even more.”

Those who are obsessed with the notion of a post-convention “bounce” - the partisans angling to win, the journalists seeking an angle – seem to forget something important. It’s called history. Some of the biggest bouncers wound up losing: Al Gore in 2000 (eight-point bounce), President Carter in 1980 (10 points), Mike Dukakis in 1988 (seven). And some of the smaller bouncers wound up winning: Richard Nixon in 1968 (five), and President Bush in 2004 (two).

Besides, the TV audience for national conventions has been steadily shrinking (due to the growing multiplicity of channels, rampant voter cynicism, and other factors), which suggests that their impact on the national mood is waning. Back in 1960, the conventions were reportedly watched by 28 percent of all potential viewers; in 2004, the percentage was only 16. On Wednesday of this week, the percentage was also 16.

So skip all the chatter about an Obama bounce out of Denver, or a McCain bounce out of Minneapolis, and just check back with the polls in mid-September. By that point, any lingering convention story lines and impressions will be factored into the national mood, or so I am told.

And don’t focus on the horserace numbers, either. I am advised to watch “the internals,” which will gauge (among other things) whether higher or lower percentages of people are viewing Obama as prepared to be president, and whether higher or lower percentages are viewing McCain as a guy in touch with their everyday problems. Those measurements are likely to tell us more about the autumn plot arc than any August bounce.