Political Cycles

You’re in a plane and you’re flying over the campaign at a level of about 10,000 feet, and you look down and see: Not much has changed. Battle lines fixed, topography the same, troops pretty much where they were.

But land the plane, walk around and talk to people, and you realize: This thing is moving. Things are shifting around a bit. That’s what I see looking back at the past four weeks.

Political LandscapeFor the first time the idea began to take hold that John McCain can win this thing. You saw the USA Today-Gallup poll this week, with Mr. McCain gaining six points since late June among those Gallup dubbed likely voters. Mr. McCain took the lead, 49% to 45%. Among registered voters, it’s still Barack Obama, 47% to 44%. A poll came out saying people are tired of hearing about Mr. Obama. Mr. McCain took the lead in YouTube hits. Small stuff, and there will be a lot of twists and turns before this is over, but there’s movement down there beneath the crust of the Earth.

Mr. Obama got tagged the past month as something new, not the candidate from Men’s Vogue but arrogant, aloof and somehow ethereal. There is no there there. Everyone I know plays the game of “This election is just like 1932,” or ‘52, or whatever. “It’s 1960—the youthful charismatic JFK versus the boring and so Republican Nixon.” “No, it’s ‘92 and the youthful charismatic Clinton versus the tired old Bush.” This election is, in fact, exactly like the 2008 election. But the other day a friend said something I hadn’t heard before: “This is 1948, and Obama is Tom Dewey”—the sleek, well-groomed, inevitable one who lost. I pondered this and said maybe he’s Dewey, but Mr. McCain’s not Truman, not so far. He is still, on the trail, his scattered self, not “Give ‘Em Hell Harry.” But the point is, even the clichés have begun to shift.

The daring and exciting European trip was probably a wash, and possibly a mistake in the bridge-too-far sense. During the coverage, pundits were always saying the trip leveled the playing field on foreign affairs between Sens. Obama and McCain. But Mr. McCain isn’t Mr. Obama’s problem in foreign affairs. Mr. McCain early on positioned himself, reasonably or unreasonably, depending on your view, as the candidate of possible new wars. I don’t think people want new wars. Mr. Obama’s problem on foreign affairs is his own youth and inexperience. In a time of high stakes, do we want Mr. Untried and Untested?

What Mr. Obama has been doing, and this started before the European trip and continued throughout, is making people see him as president. He’s doing this when he ambles back to the back of the plane and leans over the reporters, in his shirtsleeves, speaking affably into their held-up mics and recorders, at the end of the victorious tour. That’s what presidents do. He speaks to rapturous crowds in foreign capitals. That’s what presidents do.

He isn’t doing this to show he’s inevitable and invincible. He’s doing it to give voters the impression that they’ve already seen President Obama. That he’s kind of already been president, he’s done and can do all the things presidents do, to the point that by the middle of October a certain portion of the country is going to think he already is president.

And he needs to give them this impression because he’s a young black man from nowhere who’s been well-known for less than a year. And he knows one of his biggest problems with older white voters is they just can’t imagine a young black man from nowhere as president. He’s helping them imagine.

It’s not vanity, it’s strategy.

However. Mr. Obama consistently shows that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. It’s a theme with his talented, confident staff. They don’t know what they don’t know either. Because they’re young and they’ve never been in power and it takes time to know what you don’t know. The presidential-type seal with OBAMA on it, the sometimes over-the-top rhetoric about healing the earth and parting the seas. They pick the biggest, showiest venue for the Berlin speech, the Brandenburg Gate, just like a president, not realizing people would think: Ya gotta earn that one, kid. Going to Europe was fine, but they should have gone in modestly, with a modest venue, quietly spread word that his speech was open to the public, and then left the watching world awed by the hordes that showed up. For they would have. “We couldn’t help it, they love him!” It would have looked as if Europe was coming to him, and let that sink in back home.

Anyone can carp like this in retrospect, but when you know what you don’t know, you can plan like this in advance.

*   *   *

Two weeks ago a journalist, a moderate liberal, spoke to me of what he called Mr. Obama’s arrogance. I said I didn’t think it was arrogance but high self-regard. He said there’s no difference. I said no, arrogance has an air about it of pushing people around, insisting on your way. Mr. Obama doesn’t seem like that. He took down a machine without raising his voice. Extremely high self-regard, though, can itself be a problem.

“What’s wrong with that?” my friend said. “You want a self-confident president.”

I said yes, but it brings up the Churchill question. Churchill had been scored by an acquaintance for his own very high self-regard, and responded with what was for him a certain sheepishness. “We’re all worms,” he said, “but I do believe I am a glowworm.” He believed he was great, and he was. Is Mr. Obama a glowworm? Does he have real greatness in him? Or is he, say, a product of the self-esteem campaign, that movement within the schools and homes of our country the past 25 years that says the way to get a winner is to tell the kid he’s a winner every day? You can get some true people of achievement that way, because some people need a lot of reinforcement to rise. But you can also get, not to put too fine a point of it, empty suits that take on a normal shape only because they’re so puffed up with ego.

Is Mr. Obama’s self-conception in line with his gifts, depth, wisdom and character? That’s the big question, I suspect, on a number of minds.

As for Mr. McCain, I think he had the best moment of the month this week at the big motorcycle convention in Sturgis, S.D., when he was greeted with that mighty roar. And his great line: “As you may know, not long ago a couple hundred thousand Berliners made a lot of noise for my opponent. I’ll take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day.” Oh, that was good.

There’s a thing that’s out there and it’s big, and latent, and somehow always taken into account and always ignored, and political professionals always assume they understand it. It has been called many things the past 50 years, “the silent center,” “the silent majority,” “the coalition,” “the base.” The idea of it has evolved as its composition has evolved, but the fact that it’s big, and relatively silent, and somehow always latent, maintains. And watching that McCain event—vroom vroom—one got the sense it is perhaps beginning to pay attention to the campaign. I see it as the old America, and if and when it reasserts itself, the campaign will shift indeed, and in ways you can even see from 10,000 feet.