POLITICS
09/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Confronts Himself

There was mile-high Democratic euphoria in Denver last night as Barack Obama promised to restore the prosperity and national honor which have so gravely diminished during the past eight years.

Still, along with the very real possibility of a new dynamism in the Democratic party that could motivate the grassroots, fuel voter registration, turbocharge turnout, and capture the White House, signs of possible political vulnerability could be seen in the leading sentences of Obama's speech tonight before 80,000-plus people gathered at Invesco Field:

"Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story - of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren't well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to. It is that promise that has always set this country apart -- that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well."

This theme is profoundly appealing to his supporters, who see in Obama's personal story the embodiment of change, diversity, and a nation moving past racial and cultural conflict. But, at the same time, it plays directly into the Republican theme that the Obama campaign is more a celebration of Obama himself and of his own life story than a commitment to the interests of the American electorate. Obama's approach, according to this perspective, may serve to exacerbate what Pew Center pollster Andy Kohut has described as "Obama fatigue."

Receiving far more media coverage than John McCain "has proved a problem, not a blessing" for Obama, says Kohut. At the beginning of this month, a Pew poll "found 48 percent of respondents saying they had heard 'too much' about Barack Obama" compared to just 26 percent who said the same thing about McCain.

Media coverage of Obama, according to Pew studies, "did not result in giving voters a fuller or better sense of who he is politically ... Voters were expressing Obama fatigue in response to a torrent of media coverage that did not add much to their understanding of the candidate. These frustrations may have been reinforced by the McCain campaign's advertisement that portrayed Mr. Obama as the celebrity candidate."

In a presentation here sponsored by the National Democratic Institute, Kohut expanded on the 'fatigue' issue, arguing that "very little of the coverage [of Obama] has been nourishing to people ... Swing voters are frustrated with Obama, they can't quite figure him out. They don't know if he shares their values."

The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee have been acutely aware of these liabilities. Each has been pulling out the stops to establish an image of Obama as a self-focused celebrity instead of a public servant before Obama has a chance to correct his weaknesses.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart has a similar take to Kohut's, but from a different angle. Hart told the Huffington Post before Obama's speech, "The setting in the field [the stadium of the Denver Broncos] makes one worry that it is 'all about me.' Overexposure is not the problem -- it is the question of whether he can reach the level of intimacy with the home viewing audience vs. the 'Billy Graham' type experience. His task tonight is to introduce himself, but also to show [voters] that his agenda is their agenda. Humanize, not accessorize."

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told the Huffington Post that "at the very least, tonight reaffirms his celebrity status, but it remains to be seen if it will win him any additional votes. The danger is that tonight becomes more of a 'production' and a celebration of 'being' Barack Obama, rather than about his plans and his policies for the country."

Obama did address one matter of growing concern to a number of Democrats: a tendency to deal in abstractions and an inclination to stay above the fray. Obama's speech revealed rather a new willingness to take a punch at McCain, a stance that is likely to pay dividends if he can continue to go toe to toe with the Vietnam War vet.

In perhaps the most cutting line of his address, Obama, referring to McCain's focus on Iraq instead of Afghanistan, said, "You know, John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives."

Not only is it important for Obama to demonstrate that he is tough enough to take on McCain, but he needs to convince voters he is not so embroiled in his own journey and in his own search for identity that he can't move beyond his personal struggle to stand up for them.

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