Why is the Media Still Calling Obama the "Presumptive" Nominee? (Is This Sowing Doubt?)

07/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bill Katovsky Bill Katovsky is author of books on media, politics and fitness, including “Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq.”

It's been just over six weeks since Senator Barack Obama of Illinois claimed the Democratic presidential nomination based on the tally of convention delegates, yet the press still calls him the "presumptive" nominee. Why is this so? Why is he presumptive? Isn't he a guaranteed lock? Hadn't Hillary reluctantly conceded after several tumultuous days following the final primaries? Will there be some kind of August surprise in Denver?

The term itself -- "presumptive" -- suggests something not quite permanent, that something unexpected or sinister might possibly happen to Obama, and we'll see instead the Senator from New York emerge from the Denver Convention hall as the presidential candidate.

Paranoids may want you that believe that something fishy will happen either before the convention, or on the floor, that will catastrophically deprive Obama of his rightful place as the Democratic nominee. But the combined forces of Hillary and Bill are circumscribed by party rules. Granted, Hillary hasn't yet released her pledged delegates, but that is a mere technicality (so we hope). And while the Clintons haven't done much in the way of stumping for the Man Who Deprived Them of a Return to the White House, this delay doesn't mean that it's Hillary who is the presumptive nominee. She was defeated; Barack won.

Most news organizations will continue using "presumptive" right up to the convention. Then it will be dropped after Obama has been formally chosen. The time lag is ironic in today's feverish 24/7 news cycle, especially when the networks are so eager to declare winners in elections long before the polls close. Perhaps the media want to play it safe by using the catch-all term "presumptive." Heaven forbid, they could get something wrong. (Remember the 2000 election night fiasco when Gore was briefly considered the winner of Florida by the Voter News Service -- a group pooling the resources of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox and the AP. "Al Gore wins the state of Florida and its 25 electoral votes," announced Peter Jennings of ABC. "It gives him the first big-state momentum of the evening.")

I half-expect William Safire of the New York Times to dissect "presumptive" in one of his Sunday magazine columns. Anyway, its word root is from Middle English, and comes from the French présomptif, from late Latin praesumptivus, meaning "taken before," and from the verb praesumere.

According to the Oxford American dictionary, in medicine, the word can be used as follows: presumed in the absence of further information, as in a presumptive diagnosis. In legal circles, it means giving grounds for the inference of a fact or of the appropriate interpretation of the law.

And in politics, it denotes a term used by the media for several weeks or months to describe a presidential candidate who has beaten his opponents in the primaries, but is waiting for the balloons to fall from the convention ceiling. (Wikipedia even provides a 400-word entry solely on "presumptive nominee," defining it "as a political candidate who has clinched a nomination but has not yet been formally nominated.")

Until that red-white-and-blue celebratory moment following the official coronation of Obama, you can expect to see "presumptive" in print or hear it on television or radio, and at the same time, knowing that its qualifying presence before "nominee" serves to inject that awkward frisson of doubt that Obama is still not the real thing, that he remains a "fairy-tale" candidate as Bill Clinton once suggested.

During this epic and epochal moment in American politics, there are a number of grinding oppositional forces at work that aspire to delegitimize the Illinois senator. Some of these attacks come from the far left, many from unyielding Hillary apparatchiks, a smattering have emerged from disillusioned former Obama supporters who reject his opportunistic centrism, and most come from the right.

Once the New Yorker got caught up in the media firestorm for its recent cover of the fist-bumping Obamas (regretfully, almost everyone completely ignored the longish, insightful article by Ryan Lizza inside the magazine detailing Obama's shrewd and speedy rise to political power in Chicago), it immediately became obvious just how tenuous, fragile, and uncertain the nation is about the prospect of the first African-American president. Race is the new lodestar of presidential politics.

Unlike race and racism, the issue of age doesn't seem to hurt the presumptive Republican nominee Senator John McCain. (Will the New Yorker publish a cartoon cover of McCain dressed as the Mummy?)

While McCain's age remains fodder for late-night talk show yucks, the American electorate and press are giving the septuagenarian pretty much a free pass. Even occasional memory lapses and gaffes are politely forgiven or swept aside. If McCain selects a virile and younger running mate like Mitt Romney, the question of age will recede even further. Of course, religion will resurface with Romney, but the Democrats won't be as worked up about his Mormonism as a great many Republicans are rattled by the false, absurdist notion that Obama is a Koran-wielding Islamic jihadist.)

Because the media is such an echo chamber, every time that adjective "presumptive" is used in conjunction with Obama, it can have the effect of unconsciously or consciously undermining his candidacy. The press is on constant gaffe patrol as well, waiting to see him slip up. The quasi-presidential trip to the Middle East and Europe is a big media deal for the presumptive nominee, and yet, you know there are plenty of gotcha journalists lurking in ambush. Even sober-minded commentators have raised this question on talk shows: Can Obama survive the trip intact looking presidential and without saying something erroneous or foolish that will dominate the news cycle and perhaps derail his candidacy? To me, it's like sitting through an entire World Series game only hoping to see the shortstop make an error on a play that will lose the game.

Moreover, it is now obvious that the Republican Party's game plan to defeat Obama is to show that he is unfit, untested, and too inexperienced to be president. He and wife Michelle will continue to be branded as un-American. GOP operatives are licking their chops for a YouTube moment by which it can smear either one, though the ready-made Rev Jeremiah Wright one will be used in attack ads.

Whereas, with many of Obama's supporters, there is something special and transcendent about the magical mystery tour of his campaign, the Republicans will show no mercy, give no quarter, and spare no expense to demonize the Illinois senator. The GOP is determined to hold onto the Oval Office by any means necessary.

And so, as the Republican presidential campaign war machine unleashes its feral power and unrepentant viciousness, Rove's ruthless acolytes will litter the media landscape with a ceaseless onslaught of nasty innuendo, character assassination, and reckless exaggerations. This scorched-earth strategy will be amplified via right-wing talk-show hysteria. Sadly, the nation's dark underbelly of racism will be further exposed, while the politics of fear will bludgeon voters into cowed submission. If you think 2004 was bad when Republican hatchet men like Dick Cheney and Dennis Hastert said that a vote for John Kerry was a vote for Al Qaeda, you haven't seen anything yet.

For these reasons, it is critical that as many Democrats as possible register and vote on Election Day. Despite Obama's slight lead in some national polls, coupled with McCain's heretofore wobbly and erratic performance on the campaign trail, we can't safely presume that a Democrat will replace one of the most unpopular presidents in American history.