With 68 percent of Americans believing George Bush has done a poor job, and 82 percent saying the country is on the wrong track, the election of 2008 will turn on one issue: Barack Obama.
If Sen. Obama can convince the people he is "one of us," and not some snooty radical liberal from Chicago's Hyde Park, who looks down upon white America as a fever swamp of racism and reaction, a la the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the senator will be the next president.
The election of 2008 thus mirrors the election of 1980.
Then, the country wanted Jimmy Carter gone. Americans had had enough of 21 percent interest rates, 13 percent inflation and 7 percent unemployment. They wanted the Iranian hostage crisis ended, violently if necessary. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, America wanted a leader who would not kiss Leonid Brezhnev on the cheek but reassert American power.
The issue then was Ronald Reagan. Portrayed as some Al Capp cartoon of a crazed right-winger and B-Grade Hollywood actor given to spouting Reader's Digest bromides, Reagan was regarded as ridiculous by much of the media and too big a risk by much of the nation.
In one debate with Carter, Reagan erased the misperceptions and turned a close race into a cakewalk. That is Barack's opportunity.
A savvy politician, he has measured correctly the hurdle he must surmount and is moving expeditiously to alter an image of him forged by his own past associations and policy positions. In three weeks, he has jettisoned his new politics in a stunning display of raw pragmatism.
A prime minister must be "a good butcher," H.H. Asquith told Winston Churchill on naming him First Lord of the Admiralty, "and there are several who need to be pole-axed now." Four years later, Asquith would pole-axe Churchill over the Dardanelles disaster.
Obama is not lacking in this capacity that Richard Nixon, too, felt was an indispensable attribute of a statesman.
Samantha Power was tossed off Barack's sledge after calling Hillary a "monster" and suggesting Barack's Iraq timetable was not set in concrete. Robert Malley was canned for having talked to Hamas, though that was his portfolio at a think tank for conflict resolution.
Barack pole-axed pastor Wright and, though he said he could no more repudiate his church than his family, shortly after the second time Wright went off, Barack severed all ties to Trinity United.
Barack has spoken of how he cringed at the racist reaction of his white grandmother after she was accosted by a black man on a bus. Grandma has now been rehabilitated in a new ad as the loving woman who inculcated good old Kansas values into little Barack.
When his own surrogate, Gen. Wesley Clark, suggested John McCain's war service did not automatically qualify him as presidential timber, a storm erupted. Barack proceeded to cut the general's legs off.
His had been one of a few Senate voices to speak of Palestinian suffering. But Barack's address to the Israeli lobby read like it was plagiarized from the collected works of Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
When the Supreme Court declared every citizen has a Second Amendment right to a handgun, Barack stood with Justice Scalia. When Scalia said the court ought not to have taken away Louisiana's right to execute child rapists, Barack was with him again.
When Congress voted the telecoms immunity from prosecution for colluding with the Bush administration in wiretapping citizens, Barack stood with Bush and the telecoms. Fearing it might cost him his huge money-raising advantage over McCain, Barack tossed campaign finance reform over the side.
In Ohio, Barack was a populist opponent of NAFTA. He is now a free-trader. Yet when economic adviser Austan Goolsbee told the Canadians pretty much the same thing, Barack disinherited him.
As July 4 approached, Barack gratuitously dissed his friends at MoveOn.org for their "General Betray Us" ad mocking Gen. David Petraeus. And that flag pin Barack got rid of after 9-11, calling it a "substitute ... for real patriotism"? It's back on the lapel.
Last week, Barack said that, after he meets with Petraeus and his field commanders in Iraq, he might "refine" his commitment to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades within 16 months.
And finally, Obama has co-opted President Bush's faith-based initiative and claimed it as his own.
What is Obama up to? Having secured the nomination, he is moving to convince the nation he is neither a black militant nor a radical, but a man of the center who will even listen to the right.
Though infuriating to readers of The Huffington Post, this may save Barack. For in Middle America folks worry less about politicians adjusting positions than about True Believers willing to go over the cliff with flags flying -- and taking us with them.
Reagan was no Barry Goldwater. He knew when to "hold 'em," and he knew when to "fold 'em." Yet, America still knew who Reagan was.
We may be misunderestimating Barack. But the question of 2008 remains: When all is said and done, who is this guy?