Moonsigns  |  Band Guide  |  Blogs  |  In Pictures  |  Adult
Boston  |  Portland  |  Providence
Letters  |  Media -- Dont Quote Me  |  News Features  |  Talking Politics  |  The Editorial Page  |  This Just In

Going Dutch

If Obama is to win the general election, he’ll have to crib from the playbook of . . . Ronald Reagan
By STEVEN STARK  |  June 11, 2008


One odd thing is already clear about the fall campaign: in it, one of the two major candidates, John McCain, is going to play only a minor role.

Sure, he’ll occasionally get the spotlight, and there are things he can do to improve his chances marginally. But in the end, this election is about Barack Obama. The country wants a significant change in direction and Obama and the Democrats are the only ones who can credibly promise to deliver it. Thus, the results in November are going to come down to one question: can a significant portion of the electorate abide Barack Obama as its next president?

Right now, it’s an open question. And for Obama to get the answer he wants, he’s going to have to be another Ronald Reagan or another Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

There is always a threshold over which nominees must pass when the electorate decides whether a candidate can be trusted with the most powerful job in the world. For some, like General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, doing so is a cakewalk. For upstarts and more ideological purists, it’s harder. Obama, of course, is the upstart of upstarts.

The good news for Obama is that most nominees do, in fact, successfully make the transition, especially when there is an overriding desire for change. John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992 all faced an initially skeptical electorate and, through favorable debate performances and constant exposure in the general-election campaign, gradually reassured the public that it had less to fear from the unknown than from the known.

Upon closer examination, however, the Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton comparisons may not offer much of a precedent for Obama. After all, each of the three was a centrist who ran at his challenger from the right as well as the left. Clinton and Carter came from the Southern GOP base and founded their appeal, in part, on their willingness to deviate sharply from party orthodoxy. JFK, too, was a hawk on military policy, running against Nixon from the right on the basis of a purported missile gap.

In contrast, as his Senate voting record and positions demonstrate, Obama is as liberal as they come, without any public record of straying from his party’s left-leaning causes and constituencies. That means to win, he’ll have to replicate the Reagan experience and basically lead an ideological revolution that will redraw the electoral map.

Risk assessment
It’s a highly risky strategy, to say the least. It’s risky, in part, because Americans — even when they say they want change — often don’t endorse a sharp turn in direction. Yes, FDR’s election in 1932 signaled a transformation, but the nation was in the midst of its worst depression. Reagan fomented a shift in the other direction, but the economy was in tatters and another nation held our citizens hostage. Are the Iraq War and current economic situation commensurate woes? If precedent is any guide, for the Democrats to win, the voters will have to think so.

Then there’s Obama himself. FDR and Reagan were well-known figures on the national scene for years before they finally made it to the Oval Office; they each had a track record as governor of the nation’s then-largest state (New York and California, respectively) that, in the end, reassured voters they could be trusted with the nation’s highest office. Obama, by comparison, has a short résumé. Yes, experience can be overrated (as Hillary Clinton discovered) but if you’re promising to drastically refashion our politics, it may be more of a prerequisite than usual.

Obama’s uphill battle is made even trickier by the opponent he faces. Both FDR and Reagan won the office against damaged incumbents who, to a large number of Americans, had virtually disqualified themselves for a second term. McCain may not be a particularly vibrant candidate (especially if his Louisiana speech of this past week is any indication), but he’s not the incumbent.

Those focusing on Obama’s challenges so far have tended to dwell on the issue of race. But race isn’t really the main issue. Anybody would find it difficult to do what Obama is trying to do. He has a hard sell ahead of him, and there have been far more instances when such “revolutionary” candidates (think William Jennings Bryan, Barry Goldwater, or George McGovern) have found the general-election mountain far too steep to climb. Support him or not, give Obama credit for this: he thinks big, which is why the upcoming campaign will focus almost exclusively on his ideas and his persona. If only by doing that, he’s already changed our politics.

even | this past week: even

On the Web
The Presidential Tote Board blog: //

  • Courting disaster
    Why McCain’s right-wing judicial pledge would further compromise America’s future
  • Straight talk
    It’s time to cover John M c Cain again — and here are ten good places for the media to start.
  • Radical tweak
    Conservatives are missing the mark on Obama’s vulnerability
  • More more >
  Topics: News Features , Barack Obama , Ronald Reagan , John McCain ,  More more >
  • Share:
  • RSS feed Rss
  • Email this article to a friend Email
  • Print this article Print
Re: Going Dutch
Kennedy and Reagan were fighting the Cold War, for better or worse. This was a situation overdetermined by ideology, mutual wishes for world domination, etc. Fighting Islamic fundamentalism (or not), and dealing with the rogue dictators of today, etc. are issues at once more localized and black-and-white. Nations like Iran, even with the bomb, do not have the means, or even the intention, I believe, to dominate the world. The bottom line here is diplomacy, being critical and cool. Obama is very clearly capable of being both--and even McCain is, I believe. The difference is that McCain still has a Cold-War mindset, and in today's world that amounts to paranoia. What we need, and what Obama promises, is defusion, not detonation.
By gordon marshall on 06/12/2008 at 1:45:50

election special
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   CAPTAIN CHAOS  |  October 02, 2008
    Steering a suddenly lost GOP ship,
  •   ODIUM AT THE PODIUM  |  September 25, 2008
    This year, with such a close contest, the debates could have an impact like never before. Here’s what to watch for.
  •   SARAH, GET YOUR AK-47  |  September 17, 2008
    The Alaska governor is dominating the election as we head into the fall — Why that is bad news for the Obama campaign
  •   PEACOCK PROBLEM  |  September 10, 2008
    MSNBC is in Barack's corner, which may cause an electoral backfire for the Democrats
  •   DAWG DAYS  |  September 03, 2008
    The 2008 campaign is turning out to be our first-ever American Idol election

 See all articles by: STEVEN STARK

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

Featured Articles in The Editorial Page:
Wednesday, October 08, 2008  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2008 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group