Barack Obama: The "Riskier" Choice

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Jul 24, 2008 3:42 PM
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll holds some troubling numbers for Barack Obama.

Who do voters think is the "riskier choice"?  Obama - 55% to 35%.

Better "being knowledgeable, experienced"? McCain - 53%-19%

Better "Commander-in-chief"?  McCain - 53%-25%

McCain also rates better at being "honest, trustworthy" and being "consistent, standing up for beliefs" and "having leadership qualities."  Barack leads in "improving America's standing in the world," "being compassionate," "offering hope" and "being likable, easygoing."

So the question is: Which personality/qualities template will the American people believe is more important when they go to the polls to vote for a President in November of 2008?

We've heard a lot comparing this election to the Reagan/Carter contest in 1980.  Then, there was a sense of "wrong-trackness" that some analogize to the current climate, and people waited until the last minute, but then decided to take a chance on Ronald Reagan.  In that train of thought, the idea is that perhaps Barack Obama could enjoy a similar, last minute surge of support.

It's possible, but I don't think so -- and here's why.  Ironically, it has a lot to do with Democrats' efforts to stir up a crisis atmosphere when it comes to energy, the economy, etc.  Obviously, they think it's to their advantage in order to whip up voters' desire for "change."  But they may have been too clever by half, and here's why.

When Americans believe there are tough times ahead, my guess is that they're not as likely to go with the "compassionate" or "likable" guy.  They want someone "experienced" who can demonstrate "leadership."

In 1980, plenty of people still thought Carter was a "compassionate" guy who was "likable."  They just didn't think he was tough enough, a good enough leader, to deal with a faltering economy and a Soviet Union on the march.  Ronald Reagan, in contrast, came across as nothing if not a decisive, effective leader who wasn't going to let the US get pushed around anymore.  The chance-taking had nothing to do with the kind of qualities where voters see Barack as a disadvantage, e.g. experience, leadership and even consistency of belief (if anything, Reagan's problem was that Carter was arguing that he was too zealous about his beliefs and that those principles constituted a risk). 

For Barack, perhaps the relevant "chance taking" year is less 1980 than it is 1992.  Wouldn't voters be much likelier to take a chance on a new face, someone who's good at "offering hope" in a year like that one -- when, perhaps, the economy was weaker than it should be, but otherwise, the world was at peace and rolling the dice on a new guy wasn't out of the question?

Now, we live in an age of Islamofascist terrorism.  We need to figure out a more effective energy problem.  The economy bears careful watching.  In short, there is a lot going on.  Will Americans figure it's time to make the "riskier choice," go with, perhaps, the least prepared presidential candidate in modern history, and then allow him the space and time he'll need for on-the-job training?