By all accounts, Barack Obama should win this election. He and his brand control the image, the message and, to a large extent, the media of this election cycle.
Yes, the media. He has enough money to buy ads every day from now to election day, glossy magazines cannot wait to put his image on their covers, Hollywood types are so smitten that they wear his image on their clothing and YouTube is bursting at the seams with homages to him.
It is definitely his to win -- or to lose.
It all hinges on two things: likability and character.
Obama certainly is likable enough; no one gives “speech” better than the Illinois senator.
Yet what about character? Because of Obama’s newness and his lack of testing under difficult political circumstances, what do we know about his character?
“Read 'Dreams from My Father' and then tell me about character,” says Democrat strategist Mark Siegel.
Siegel brushes aside some character judgments that Obama made in the last week, such as breaking his pledge to accept public financing and a promise to the left side of his base on the FISA wiretapping bill.
Then there was the Obama “seal,” of which one Democrat strategist said, “You may as well have put it on his head, called it a helmet and drove him around in a tank.”
Siegel disagrees. “I actually am kind of excited about a Democratic candidate who cares about winning and seems to know how to win, who actually has some lead in his pencil. I'm sure Dukakis, Gore and Kerry would have done a lot of wonderful things as president, but they never got the chance. Barack Obama will.”
Purdue political scientist Bert Rockman says New York Times columnist David Brooks has it right on character regarding Obama: “He's a tough-as-nails politician who will do what he has to do. In some respects, that will stand him in good stead; in other respects, not so much.”
Rockman says that Obama has first-in-his-class intelligence and the ability to listen and absorb. “In my estimation,” he explains, “that is the trait most needed in a president and one that has been sorely lacking in the current president.
“All politicians would throw their mothers overboard if they had to. Obama is no different, nor is McCain,” he notes. “But McCain, like Bush and Reagan, thinks with his gut. Obama thinks with his head. That's a big difference and a crucial one.”
Part of Obama's character development is that he has to be who he says he is, even when it gets hard.
The whole flap about campaign finance was not about campaign finance at all. It was about piercing the thin, shiny image of Obama as a straight-talking, post-partisan reformer – in other words, character.
Few voters will remember his public-funding pledge or his wiretapping pledge. What they will remember is if he keeps his word, if he has the character to be president. That involves whether he can be trusted and depended on to do what needs to be done (or what he says he is going to do).
That character part is more important than the likable part this election year.
John McCain is stuck in a hall of Obama mirrors; everywhere he goes, he is marginalized by images of Obama. His best and only recourse, thanks to the anemic brand of the Republican Party, is to stick to his character and move that narrative.
McCain must insist that “when things get tough and challenging, I double-down because I know what the right thing to do is; what Barack Obama does is cut and run.”
McCain cannot win on change; he has to win on character – his and Obama's.
For his part, Obama basically must pass the character test and win on issues.
“The real thing that is ultimately going to decide this election is that people are dissatisfied and they think things are getting worse,” Rockman says. “That's a big help to the Democrats and to Obama.
“McCain's character will help him some, I'm sure. But the Republican brand name is currently in disrepute, and that will be a drag on McCain.”
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