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Arrogance Will Not Help Get Obama Elected

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Susan EstrichSusan B. Landau

Now that Barack Obama has completed his beyond much-publicized overseas trip, it’s hard to argue that the trip wasn’t everything his strategists hoped for.

Could the speech have been better? I’m not sure how. Could the crowds have been bigger? They were plenty big. Could the coverage have been more exhaustive? The Beatles come to America! Barack Obama goes abroad!

True, each of the three network anchors, especially Katie Couric, who got savaged on the blogs the most harshly for it, managed to actually sound like reporters asking real questions, but who was listening? (Literally, in one of the few press availabilities, even if you were listening, you could only hear Obama, since he was the only one with a microphone). People watched, and the pictures couldn’t have been better.

But, will it make any difference in terms of who is going to win this election? I’m not sure.

The point of the trip, of course, was to give Obama gravitas on foreign policy issues, to help voters forget that he is only six years removed from the Illinois State Senate and only eight years from having his credit card declined when he tried to rent a car at the 2000 Los Angeles convention (a story he used to tell on himself). So there he was, looking, acting, being treated, like he is already president, walking in the footsteps of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in Berlin, even borrowing their words. Every Obama supporter I know was in heaven.

Problem is, there aren’t enough Obama supporters yet to carry the election. It’s the folks in the middle, the folks who haven’t deecided, the folks who need convincing or are inclined not to like him, or are still smarting from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, who will decide this election. Did the foreign trip move them?

In the prayer he left at the Western Wall, Senator Obama asked the Lord to protect him from pride and despair. Maybe he should have added something about protecting his campaign from the related danger of arrogance. It might be the biggest threat to Obama’s success.

“They think they can’t lose,” one of the smartest people I know said to me this week, describing the attitude he sees on display in the Obama campaign. He isn’t the first one to say it.

There was a crop of stories, as the trip was ending, suggesting that the Obama campaign, which used to pride itself on its openess and transparency as compared to the Clinton machine, has now abandoned openess and transparency in favor of tight controls, attacks on reporters who write less-than flattering pieces, and a particularly unattractive form of hardball that people who think they are on the way to the White House, or already there, often adopt. It will not serve him well.

There is no reason for arrogance. Yes, the economy stinks. Yes, people are sick of the war in Iraq. Yes, they think the country is headed in the wrong direction, that the Bush years have cost us dearly, that we need change. The generic Democrat beats the generic Republican. John McCain is old and has, since winning the nomination, run a pretty uninspired campaign. He’s on a tightrope between now and the convention, rightly concerned that he not offend the right in a way that leads to a repeat of the disastrous 1992 Republican Convention, where conservatives were determined to dominate even at the expense of their candidate, and did, to his great detriment.

But even with all this, even with the press cooing, the Republican stumbling, his message muddled and his base shaky, the polls are showing the race neck-and-neck, Obama within the margin of error, behind in the key state of Ohio. And this without even factoring in, or trying to, just how many people are giving the politically correct answer to pollsters, saying they’re for Obama when they aren’t. This is, my solid blue friends, no time for arrogance.

Once he gets past the convention, McCain will run a better campaign. He will run as an insurgent, an independent, a man who defies labels, the guy who championed immigration reform and stood up to his colleagues on the left and right (remember the Gang of Fourteen that broke the logjam on judges), the guy who is tough enough and experienced enough to be president. If he’s within a few points now, he will be stronger then. The Republicans will unite because they might not love McCain, but they love the White House and control even more.

I’m not saying McCain will win. Maybe the pollsters are all wrong in their predictions of what the electorate will look like this time. Maybe so many more blacks and 18-29 year olds will be moved to vote that it won’t matter that seniors, who always vote, don’t think McCain is too old. Maybe McCain the independent will lead at least some of the conservative Christians who helped put Bush in office, twice, to stay home, or not make their phone calls. I just wouldn’t count on it. Obama could win, but he also could lose. If his campaign doesn’t understand that now, they will pay for it in November.