From the eleventh-floor headquarters of Barack Obama's campaign on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, 2008 looks a lot like 1980--with the ideological polarities reversed. Then as now, amid a reeling economy and an energy crisis, the electorate was craving change. It had rejected the party that held the White House; it wanted something, someone, new. In Ronald Reagan, the country confronted a charismatic, optimistic, oratorically gifted alternative running on the twin themes of hope and change, who had led a grassroots insurgency to defeat the Republican Establishment's candidate, George H. W. Bush. But voters had their doubts about Reagan. He seemed risky, inexperienced, extreme. So the race remained tight until the final days, when Reagan assuaged those nagging fears by appearing presidential in his debate (there was just one!) with Jimmy Carter and then sprinted to a ten-point rout. And thus it will be with Obama and John McCain--just you wait and see.
The 1980 analogy is the Obamans' reply to the political questions du jour: In a year when more than 80 percent of voters think the country is on the wrong track, when Democratic registration is surging and the Republican brand is in the crapper, when McCain is on the wrong side of the public on the war and the economy, his senior moments occurring with staggering regularity--in a year like this, why is the race so close? Why isn't Obama creaming his rival? Why is he, at best, just a few points ahead, and stubbornly stalled below 50 percent in every national poll?
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