Obama has proven himself to be a strong and durable candidate -- eloquent, inspiring and energizing. His change message rides atop a powerful wave of discontent across the country after eight years of George W. Bush's presidency. More than any other candidate who competed for either party's nominations, Obama has made change the core of his campaign message.The Questions
For a novice, which it is easy to forget he was when this campaign began in early 2007, he has demonstrated impressive skills as a candidate. He showed patience when Clinton was being called the all-but-inevitable nominee and he performed impressively at big moments, such as the Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner last November. He is a far better candidate today than he was when he started.
Obama has been a largely mistake-free candidate, save for several notable exceptions, such as his now famous "bitter" comments at a San Francisco fundraiser. He did not start out as a strong debater and debates are still not his best forum, but he has gotten better and more comfortable. His last debate in Philadelphia, when he was pummeled with questions, was certainly not a high point, but in a series of head-to-head encounters with Clinton over the past three months, he more than held his own.
The long campaign has toughed Obama for a general election. Even some Clinton loyalists respect the resilience he showed in weathering a very difficult six weeks, highlighted by the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. That kind of turbulence could have undone a weaker candidate. Instead, Obama persevered and survived.
He assembled a first-rate campaign team and trusted them to devise and execute a strategy that has now put him in position to defeat a Clinton operation that long has been judged the gold standard in Democratic politics. In contrast to the Clinton operation, Obama's team has avoided destructive internecine warfare, and has kept disagreements inside the family and off the front pages. Obama's team understood and exploited the rules of the Democratic nominating process. Clinton's did not. Even when she was far ahead in the polls, Obama advisers began to prepare for a contest that would go to Feb. 5 and beyond. Clinton's team was caught flat-footed.
Obama's campaign has two other assets heading toward a likely general election: money and organization. His financial advantage over McCain between now and the nominating conventions at the end of the summer will be even larger than that which he has enjoyed over Clinton. His ability to start a general election advertising campaign soon and sustain it at high levels throughout the summer puts Democrats in a position they've not been in the past two elections. Organizationally, Obama's campaign has been stellar -- and will have put down roots in every state in the country. That is a significant asset heading into a general election campaign. The top of the Obama campaign is replete with people whose roots are in field operations and over the past 16 months the campaign has developed a new cadre of battle-tested organizers who can now go manage operations in the battleground states.
For all the time Obama has spent on the campaign trail, there are many voters --particularly those who have not participated in the Democratic primaries but who are up for grabs in November -- who still don't really know him. Rev. Wright was the single biggest reminder that Obama will face dissonance as he tries to write his own story. Obama's advisers have spoken repeatedly about the need to introduce or reintroduce their candidate. Are voters fully comfortable with Barack Obama? What can or must he do to allay any concerns that may exist about his values, his biography, his heart? McCain's campaign already has played a not-so-subtle patriotism card against Obama in its early advertising. There will be more.Final Thoughts
Nor is Obama well defined on the question of what he would do as president. His campaign advisers would reject that claim, pointing to any number of speeches and proposals on health care, the economy, the housing crisis, middle class tax cuts and ending the war in Iraq. But Obama's core message is much more about process than substance: changing politics to change policies. What are his real priorities and how would he accomplish them?
His policy proposals make him appear to be an orthodox liberal, while his message is unity and reaching across party lines. Those don't easily fit together and Obama will have to articulate more fully why they are not in conflict with one another. Then there is the weakness that has been exposed throughout the campaign against Clinton, which is his difficulty corralling the votes of white, working class voters. Despite his focus on those voters in recent weeks, he did no better with them North Carolina than he had in Pennsylvania and Ohio and only marginally better with them in Indiana. The fact that he has avoided West Virginia this week -- and expects to lose overwhelmingly there next week -- speaks to that weakness.
The Clinton campaign issued an analysis Friday underscoring their contention that she does better in swing districts than Obama, arguing anew that she would be a better candidate to take on McCain. Of 20 districts that Democrats picked up in 2006 but that went for Bush in 2004, Clinton has won 16 and Obama 4, by the Clinton camp's analysis. Obama advisers argue that he will be a more compelling candidate to many of these voters when matched against McCain than he has been against Clinton because he will have an economic message that is more appealing. But he has much work to do on this front.
Obama is on the brink of claiming a remarkable victory in the nomination battle -- and against an impressive and formidable opponent. But in McCain, he will face another opponent who has demonstrated dogged determination and resilience equal to or greater than Clinton's. He should take nothing for granted from his success in the primaries.