In which science-fiction movie do aliens visit the people of earth and insist, "Take me to your leader"? If they landed today, America's news media would direct them to Barack Obama, the first American to run a global campaign for President. Like Coca-Cola and Nike, brand Obama has gone global. His web-site retails a Wall-Mart sized inventory of candidate-themed winter and summer gear, though the well-dressed Obama enthusiast is advised he may have to wait one to two weeks to slip on the candidate-for-all seasons.
Obama returned from Europe triumphant. An America that yearns to regain the world's respect saw one foreign leader after another throw open their arms to the American President-in-waiting who arrived on his own Air Force One. Obama was not only treated with respect, he was received enthusiastically, a public affront to an administration, lest we forget, still in power. One way for the Illinois Senator to overcome doubts about his experience is to let Americans see him doing the job. That he did, making the world his stage, fitting the role of President comfortably and demonstrating presidential stature. Yet Obama's international success is only one wave of the storm that has been pounding John McCain's campaign.
McCain took another blow when Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki stamped the Good Housekeeping seal of approval on Obama's Iraq exit strategy. A real "mission accomplished" in Iraq is a political minus for McCain: If the war is done, why do we need a warrior President? It would be one of the great ironies of the election for McCain to be defeated by his own success in Iraq, the triumph of the surge strategy that he singly and doggedly championed. Yet John McCain may soon find himself in the position of buying the voters the tie they just got for Christmas: In the latest NBC/WSJ survey, the war in Iraq is no longer the most important election issue, plunging 14%. It is a success that allows the economy, not security, to take center stage, recalling the theme with which Labour deposed Churchill in July of 1945, "Victory In War Must Be Followed By A Prosperous Peace". That is not necessarily a plus for the candidate who declared "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should." Perhaps Senator McCain is trying to lower our expectations.
Add the steepest drop in home prices in 20 years, the weakest auto sales in 15 years, gas prices that have tripled since the Bush Administration took office, the "lets-stay-in-bed" lack of enthusiasm among McCain's own voters who support him as "the lesser of two evils", and a president whose approval ratings have rocketed to one point above his all-time low, and this election should be slam dunk for the gangly, three-point jump shot artist once known as "Barry O'Bomber."
Could Barack Obama possibly get any luckier? It turns out, yes, he can. The caricature of everything wrong with the Republican party, the longest-serving, biggest-spending, pork-devouring Republican in Washington, Senator Ted Stevens, has been indicted on seven felony charges. A timely poster-boy for Republican corruption, he will be cooked publicly on his own clandestinely secured Viking grill.
Barack Obama should not have to hit a three-pointer to win this election. It should be a lay-up. Yet if Senator Obama is doing so well, why is he doing so poorly? And if John McCain is doing so poorly, why is he doing so well?
The Rasmussen Reports Daily Tracking has McCain down only 1%, 43% to Obama's 44%. Real Clear Politics National Average of surveys pegs McCain less than 3% behind, with Gallup showing it tied, and USA Today actually placing McCain ahead of Obama, 49% to 45%. CNN reports McCain is in a better position in Colorado, Michigan, and Wisconsin than he was a month ago and they have moved Minnesota toward McCain into the toss-up category. Give them credit, despite the occasional criticism from this McCain supporter and others, John McCain's maverick band of campaign warriors are keeping this race competitive and, yes, even winning a hand or two, in the face of the worst political environment Republicans could have envisioned and the best global media exposure any Democratic presidential candidate has managed. McCain's recent attacks have worked. McCain's attacks on Obama's tax increases, his elitism and celebrity, his canceled visit to wounded troops, as well as McCain's sharp response to Obama's imagined Republican racial attacks, all dumped cold-water on the Obama campaign, stunting momentum from his European swing and creating a Berlin backlash.
Despite the McCain campaign's effectiveness, however, the best campaign against Barack Obama is not being run by his opponent, but by Barack Obama. It is Obama's campaign that presents their candidate as an ever-changing work-in-progress. It is his own campaign that occludes our ability to know this man, depicting him as authentic as a pair of designer jeans.
To earn the Democratic nomination, as Fred Thompson points out, Obama ran as George McGovern without the experience, a left-of-center politician who would meet unconditionally with Iran, pull us precipitously out of Iraq, prohibit new drilling for oil, and grow big government in Washington by all but a trillion dollars. In his general election TV ad debut, however, Obama pirouetted like Baryshnikov. With a commercial Mike Huckabee could have run in a Republican primary, Obama now emphasizes his commitment to strong families and heartland values, "Accountability and self-reliance. Love of country. Working hard without making excuses." In this yet unwritten chapter of his next autobiography, Obama tells us he is the candidate of "welfare to work" who supports our troops and "cut taxes for working families." The shift in his political personae has been startling. Obama has moved right so far and so fast, he could end up McCain's Vice-Presidential pick.
General-election Obama now billboards his doubts about affirmative action. He has embraced the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption saying, "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon...everything." He tells his party "Democrats are not for a bigger government." Oil drilling is a consideration. His FISA vote and abandonment of public campaign finance introduce us to an Obama of recent invention. And as he abandons his old identity for the new, breeding disenchantment among his formerly passionate left-of-center supporters and, equally, doubts among the center he courts, he risks becoming nothing at all, a candidate who is everything and nothing in the same moment. In one of the most powerful marketing books of the past few years, Authenticity, an exploration of our demand for what's real in an increasingly contrived world, authors Gilmore and Pine quote philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell about Al Gore. "Every attempt to regain authenticity," Crispin says, "only casts a new, infinitely repeated image through the hall of mirrors that is his political life and our media experience of that life." Those reflections set the authenticity of John McCain in high-relief. McCain has revealed himself to his core.
In the defining moment of his life, McCain was willing to give everything for one thing, and that one thing was his country. Contrast that with Obama, who has told America that he is "a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world." Obama is the talented salesman who seduced one state after another saying "Iowa, this is our moment," "Virginia, this is our moment," "Texas, this is our moment," and then tells Europe, "people of Berlin, people of the world, this is our moment." How many times can Barack Obama sell the same moment to everyone, before he becomes Mel Brooks in "The Producers"? Who is Barack Obama? His campaign, as it reupholsters him before our eyes, says we can never know -- perhaps because Barack Obama does not know himself.
Dreams from My Father is a staggeringly beautiful book, lyrical, powerful and poetic. It is also the story of a man who has been many men, all named Barack Obama. In his own eyes, he is one race, but also another. He is an American, but also a Kenyan. He is from Hawaii and also the Kansas heartland. He is Harvard elite, then the Chicago streets. At times he decries the very clay from which he was made, only to remake himself again.
At each place and stage, as Barack Obama chronicles the chapters of his life, he tells us how he has re-invented himself, becoming the role he inhabits, though not falsely or in-authentically, like Bill Clinton. He actually seems to transform himself, becoming what must be next. He has been called distant, aloof and somewhat unapproachable, perhaps because we cannot approach what he does not have, a solid core. His soul seems to be molten and made up of dreams, which is at once breathtakingly inspiring and forbiddingly indeterminate. When this young man with the flowing, passionate core, when this candidate without the solid-center changes positions and transforms himself as we watch, it leaves Americans much more in doubt about who he is and how he would lead us. It also reveals an Obama of unapproachable arrogance and inestimable self-regard: He appears confident voters will appreciate his superiority regardless of where he journeys or what he becomes to meet his political ambitions.
John McCain is a complete and well-formed man. Barack Obama is completing himself. As he moves to fit what he perceives to be a right-of-center country, he distances himself from the simple and authentic passion of a young candidate who once pledged "Change We Can Believe In."
This is the trap Barack Obama has made for himself, the one he cannot escape, the one Hillary Clinton foresaw, the one that may doom him. The Obama campaign knows it too. In fear the dream is being lost drop-by-drop, they are going negative on John McCain. Maybe the aliens should ask to meet McCain, as well.
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