iOS app Android app More

Drew Westen

Drew Westen

Posted: September 9, 2008 10:23 AM

What Obama Needs to Do in the Final Sixty Days: Avoiding President Palin


Democrats around the country have been growing increasingly anxious over the last week, and for good reason. If there was a clear message from Denver, it was reflected in the remarks of virtually every commentator on television after Obama's magnificent speech: "Wow, Obama can throw a punch." He needed to indict the Bush administration and the Republican Party for what they have done to the country, and he needed to show that he can be powerful, not just eloquent and inspiring. If there was another message, it was the power of narrative. Over and over we heard comments like, "Wow, what a great story"--referring both to the stories Michele and Barack Obama told about themselves and the stories Bo and Joe Biden told about Obama's vice presidential nominee, which drew a visible tear from the eyes of Michele--which itself addressed the story Republicans were trying to tell about her, that she is a cold, hard, angry black woman (the same story they told about Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, with the racial twist to make it more incendiary).

It was not just the "liberal media elite" who responded to a week in which Democrats finally told a sustained, coherent, narrative about how the Bush administration and the Republican Party had pillaged our economy and left the country increasingly alone and unsafe in the world (although they left out some crucial details Americans should have heard about, like the extraordinary rendition of innocent people to torture chambers in the Middle East), about how McCain represents the same failed ideology of the Bush years, and about who Barack Obama really is and how he intends to lead. By the end of the convention, Obama had opened up an 8-point lead in the Gallup Polls, a stark contrast to the two-point deficit with which he began the convention after three months of failing to offer any narrative at all and doggedly refusing to go after McCain while McCain was using him as a punching bag, hitting him with one narrative after another (Obama is a celebrity, an elitist, an uppity guy who is too big for his breeches, a tax and spend liberal, someone who doesn't put country first, someone who doesn't share "our" values, not one of "us").

But the political panorama can change rapidly, and this one did the moment the convention ended and the Obama campaign decided to resume shooting scenes from its sequel to the Kerry campaign, "President Palin's Revenge" (which itself was a bad remake of "Dukakis, Tanks but No Tanks"). They already had all the footage they needed from the summer: no real narrative about their candidate, no narrative about their opponent, refusal to answer attacks, weak performances in televised interviews, poor use of surrogates on television (if they were even present), changing positions in ways that undercut the candidate's narrative of authenticity, and an disquietingly poor performance on Rick Warren's pseudo-debate with McCain. This was stock Democratic footage.

So after a week of Republicans mocking the Democrats, deriding everyone who isn't one of them (especially the dark-skinned, exotic Obama) as un-American, anti-life, elitist, hostile to "small town values," and narcissistic or subversive (putting himself, something, or some group--perhaps black people?--other than "Country First"), McCain has now opened a 4-point lead in the Gallup Polls among registered voters. That's not even factoring in McCain's advantage among "likely voters," which is higher; or the percent of voters who accurately guess the race of the person on the other end of the phone when the pollster calls and adjust their response if she sounds black, or the additional percent who would vote for a black man in public (as they did in Democratic caucuses) but whose unconscious (and increasingly conscious) prejudices emerge when they vote in private, often taking forms such as, "I just don't know Obama," "Something about him makes me uneasy," "I'm not sure I can trust him," "I think he's really a Muslim," or "He must have stuck with that Reverend Wright all those years for a reason."

Fortunately these numbers are volatile, and the Obama campaign seems to have decided that it's time to run an offense again at least part of the time (with a new ad debuting yesterday in swing states attacking McCain's "maverick" status). With all the factors going for Democrats this year (their generic lead over Republicans after 8 years of mismanagement and malfeasance remains in the double digits) and the more charismatic candidate, the polls should shift back again, at least to parity.

But McCain shouldn't have gotten a 10-point bump from his uncivil convention, and this election shouldn't be close. What happened in one short week was both completely predictable and completely avoidable. Just hours after a Democratic Convention that reignited Democratic enthusiasm and started to swing those swing voters who just weren't sure about Obama, the Obama campaign had forgotten everything it should have learned from its success of Denver--most importantly that you never drop your gloves, and that you never let the other side control the narratives--and had returned to the same failed strategies that gave us Presidents Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry, strategies Democratic consultants have passed from generation to generation like a family heirloom laced with hemlock.

The only statement the Obama campaign issued after McCain announced his choice--and the only real statement it has made until yesterday's "No Maverick" ad--was a laudatory statement of congratulations. When George Stephanopoulos posed a question to Obama about her qualifications this weekend and Keith Olbermann did the same on Monday, Obama evaded it both times, as if it were Obama, not McCain, who should be on the defensive about having chosen an unqualified person who is under the cloud of an ethics investigation and who has proven herself, like McCain, unable to get along with even members of her own party in Alaska, and, like Bush, to have an uneasy relationship with the truth.

The Obama campaign even released an ad the day before her speech that implicitly conceded that she was a great choice and a giant leap forward for women, beginning, "...although he [McCain] may have made history" (which was factually inaccurate, unless the Obama campaign was conceding the election, since her nomination would only be historic if McCain were elected; Geraldine Ferraro broke the glass ceiling of a vice presidential nomination nearly 25 years ago), and went on to say nothing about McCain's choice, instead attacking McCain on being like Bush (without noting that McCain had just proven it again by choosing a religious zealot with non-mainstream values and a penchant for governmental intrusion on social issues that most swing voters find repugnant), with the words, "So this may be his running mate, but..." implying, "OK, we'll concede that she's terrific, but McCain's the one running for President." (Given that Palin was the one on everyone's mind, the ad seemed oddly out of sync, placing a punctuation mark on the Obama campaign's conflict about what to do about her. This is not the first time their "rapid response" has been over 10 days as they watched a large lead turn into a deficit in the polls.)

McCain had not, in fact, made history. He had made a crass political calculation that was both reckless and ill-considered, just like Bush, and he had put something other than Country First, namely his personal ambition to be President. If Obama can't tell the truth about what's wrong with his opponent, he isn't speaking honestly to the American people, regardless of his motivation. If his pollsters and consultants have been advising him to avoid attacking his opponent for abandoning every value he ever stood for (he was against torture, now he's for it; he was against overturning Roe v. Wade, now he's for it; he was for comprehensive immigration reform, now he's against it; he was against tax cuts for the wealthy in wartime, now he's for it), he needs to redeploy those pollsters and consultants to someplace useful, like Afghanistan, where we need some extra boots on the ground.

A week ago, I warned of exactly what could turn the election around for the GOP after the stunning success of the Democratic Convention and Obama's magnificent acceptance speech:

Obama is now poised to break 50 percent in the polls. Whether he does so, and whether he wins or loses in November, will likely depend on whether he, his campaign team, and the Democrats learn the lessons of this convention, or whether they backslide in debates and public statements into the politics of meandering, dispassionate prose; failure to demonstrate toughness, resolve, and, yes, aggression where appropriate; and failure to understand that the best time to shape the public discourse is before the other side has had a chance to "sell" its version of truth to the American people. Decades of research in social psychology have demonstrated that two of most important principles of persuasion when people have a choice between options are to get there first--to tell your side of the story--and to inoculate against what the other side is likely to say. Democratic consultants need to read that research--tonight--and stop relying on the same intuitions that have proven wrong in election after election. We are supposed to be the party of science, yet we constantly practice political creationism... A case in point is the way the Obama campaign appears poised to respond (or, more accurately, not to respond) to McCain's choice of a running mate, which they need to do immediately, before the start of the GOP Convention.

The piece went on to describe the story McCain would try to tell at the Republican Convention--"that this was a bold move of a maverick reformer, an effort to break the glass ceiling for women, an effort to bring executive experience to his team, and the elevation to prominence of a young, socially conservative reformer with a moving story of her commitment to the crusade against all abortions"--and warned that Palin would showcase her decision not to abort a Down Syndrome baby at the GOP Convention (replete with repeated camera shots of the cuddly new baby) and use that decision as part of a story that would make her a folk hero, a mixture of Mother Theresa, Wonderwoman, and Supermom.

I argued that before the opening gavel, the Obama campaign needed to brand McCain as reckless and impulsive, having selected a running mate who wouldn't have been on anyone's shortlist of, say, 1000, to be a heartbeat away from the leadership of the free world on the ticket with a 72-year-old man with recurrent melanoma; that it needed to brand McCain as a hypocrite who was running as a maverick but had just selected a woman who makes George W. Bush look like a feminist to pander to right-wing religious extremists, and who had been hammering Obama relentlessly for months for his lack of foreign policy experience and then picked a person whose only foreign policy experience consisted in knowing where Russia was on the map and applying for a passport; and that it needed to brand Palin herself as an extremist who reserves for herself and her family the right to make painful, difficult, highly personal decisions but believes the government should make those decisions for every other family struggling with the question of whether to carry a troubled or unwanted pregnancy to term. She would even force teenage rape victims to bear their rapists' babies--something 85 percent of Americans find morally abhorrent, including the majority of evangelical Christians, and something every American should hear about her over and over. There is, in fact, a country where people with the hubris to believe that they know what's in the mind of God use the instruments of state to enforce their interpretations of scripture on other people's lives, and perhaps when Palin and her husband succeed in convincing their fellow Alaskans to secede from the United States, they can suggest joining that country: Iran. I'm sure the Iranians would be happy to annex Alaska for the oil.

But the Obama campaign chose, once again, to run its plays from the Kerry playbook, in this case waiting for Palin to define herself in whatever way she wanted in front of an enormous television audience, just as they had allowed McCain to run unopposed in his self-definition as a "straight talker" and a "maverick." And the results were just as predicted: Palin emerged a folk hero, and McCain's decision, instead of being branded as reckless, reinforced his reputation as a maverick.

The Obama campaign has 60 days to turn momentum around one more time. They couldn't have more favorable circumstances, with unemployment now breaking 6 percent, the economy in disarray, an unpopular president, an unpopular war, and our military strength and our moral standing in the world at their lowest ebb in over a century. Perhaps they'll get lucky. Perhaps some crucial emails will emerge showing Palin's illegitimate interference in Alaska's "Troopergate," forcing her to drop out of the race and leaving the McCain campaign in tatters. Perhaps Santa Claus, with whom Palin has foreign policy experience because of Alaska's proximity to the North Pole, will bring a sack of coherent messages to Chicago. Or perhaps the campaign's newfound willingness to mix it up with McCain in the days leading up to the Democratic Convention and its apparent return from hibernation in the last two or three days suggests that they have decided that it isn't enough to have a brilliant ground game and a brilliant Internet team but that you also have to have a coherent message and some spine.

So as someone who has been informally advising the campaign for nearly a year, but who has grown as frustrated and concerned as the dozens of fellow Democrats who have written me in increasing tones of desperation over the last week, let me suggest 10 more ways the Obama campaign can avoid yet another B-movie with an unhappy ending.

1. Don't practice political creationism.

The Obama campaign was well aware of the argument a year and a half ago that the most destructive thing they could do was to leave the emerging Muslim smear on the Internet unchallenged. They were aware of the relevant scientific data on how the same kind of smear that worked against Harold Ford, Jr. in Tennessee. They chose to ignore the science and to rely instead on Democratic conventional wisdom, that bringing a smear into the light of day and attacking it there before it captures the popular imagination only draws attention to it, and that it's better not to "dignify" it. We've heard that story before, and it doesn't end happily ever after.

They were similarly aware of the argument--it was published right here a little over a week ago--that allowing Palin to define herself would make it difficult to change public opinion if she delivered a strong, emotionally compelling acceptance speech, because once people have formed a positive impression, they will fend off data inconsistent with it. Precisely how and why this happens in the brain is not a secret. Once again they chose to ignore the relevant science.

This is how Republicans govern. They ignore science and rely on faith and intuition. Unfortunately, it's how Democrats campaign. No one should be involved in messaging or strategy in a Democratic campaign who isn't intimately familiar with the 60 years of research in social psychology on persuasion--on what works and what doesn't. This isn't optional reading. No one aware of that research would have made the strategic error the Obama campaign just made on the Palin nomination.

2. Stop playing checkers when the other side is playing chess.

Republican strategists play chess. They think six moves ahead. Democrats play checkers. They think one move ahead.

Why has the Obama campaign been so terrified of saying anything about Palin? As best I can tell (I have no inside information on this, but they seem to be slowly rolling out female surrogates to fire the first shots over Palin's bow), it's because they are afraid of offending women or being branded as sexist (something the Republicans accused them of anyway, even when they hadn't said a word). That kind of concrete thinking is just like the concrete, one-dimensional thinking Republicans demonstrate when they govern. If a basic book on social psychology should be mandatory reading for Democratic campaigns, The Daily Show should be mandatory viewing. Take a look at Samantha Bee's "commentary" on Palin (it's on the Show's website), where she describes how "as a Vagina-American" she had to support Palin even though they differ on every value that matters to her. Every time Jon Stewart tried to appeal to her rationally (the Democratic way)--that Palin is against women's rights to make the most personal decisions about their own lives, that she opposes equal pay for equal work--Bee just shook her head and answered with responses like, "Boobies," or "Love pouch."

The piece was hilarious, but it was also right to the point. African-Americans didn't flock to Alan Keyes. And neither women nor men would have so readily bought what Sarah Palin was selling if the Democrats had spent the days before her speech describing McCain's recklessness, poor judgment, and lack of principle in selecting her, and if they had simply told a good story about her that she would have had to spend her speech defensively responding to rather than turning herself into a folk hero. Those shots of her newborn baby and her pregnant daughter with her newfound fiancée whose Facebook entry says he doesn't want children wouldn't have been so powerful if the viewers watching them knew beforehand that if Palin and McCain are elected, Americans families won't be allowed to make their own decisions if faced with similar choices, that their children will never hear the word "condom" in sex education classes even though over 85% of the electorate--including evangelical Christians--wants their children educated about birth control, and that we will consequently see an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies until McCain makes his first Supreme Court appointment, after which Roe will be overturned--something the vast majority of Americans oppose. Undoing a narrative is far more difficult than inoculating against it.

3. Don't confuse positive and negative messages with ethical and unethical ones.

John Kerry never talked about Abu Ghraib, even as the horrific images were coming out in the middle of the general election. His advisors were worried that if he did, the Republicans would respond that he didn't "support the troops." That's playing checkers. In his convention address, Barack Obama never mentioned Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition (using examples of real people whose only crime was to be mistaken for someone else, who went through exactly what John McCain went through at the Hanoi Hilton), water-boarding, the conversion of the Justice Department to the police arm of the Republican Party, George Bush's knowledge of the impending 9/11 attacks, or the fact that any of our children can be picked up while traveling abroad and taken away and tortured without a trace by any nation that deems them a security risk (an "enemy combatant") because those are the rules of the road the United States has established under Republican leadership.

There is no relation between whether a message is ethical or unethical and whether it is positive or negative. Sarah Palin told some wonderfully positive stories as tens of millions of Americans watched her and enjoyed her "spunk" and sense of humor. She told that great story about how she sold the governor's private jet on e-bay. It happened not to be true. Voters vote with their emotions, and if you misinform their emotions by refusing to speak negative truths about your opponent, you are misleading the electorate and endangering your candidacy.

Positive and negative emotions are largely independent in the brain, with different causes, functions, and circuitry. Try answering the following questions. First, do you love your spouse or partner? Second, in the last month, who has made you angrier than anyone else in the world? For most of us, the answer to both questions is the same. What does that say about positive and negative emotions?

In politics, if you leave voters' negative feelings about either you or your opponent to chance by refusing to define your opponent or hit back hard and swiftly when he tries to define you (the conventional Democratic wisdom--"voters don't like negativity"), you are ceding half the brain to the other side. You don't win elections with half a brain.

4. Attack the character of the attacker if his attack is suggests bad character.

If your opponent's attacks on you reflect a character problem, attack his character. Make the attack about him, not you. John McCain's "positive" ads about himself and his theme at the Republican Convention ("Country First") show bad character. His first "positive" ad of the general election (called "The American President") ended with the words, "John McCain: The American President Americans have been waiting for." The implication our brains immediately process is that Barack Obama would be some other kind of President: Un-American? Anti-American? African-American? McCain's "Country First" suggests that Obama would put something or someone ahead of his country: Muslims? Blacks? Black Muslims (the conservative media finally made that link explicit this week in Human Events)? Himself? Funny how these themes just happen to fit with the themes of conservative talk radio, Fox News, and the Internet smears. McCain and his party have done everything possible to brand Obama as un-American and unpatriotic, and these ads and campaign themes are not accidental. They are part of an organized campaign to define Obama as "not one of us." They are hateful, and the best way to deal with hate is to call it by its proper name.

5. Make it about "us" if they make it about "them."

McCain's entire convention--up until his speech, which wisely took the high road after he'd allowed all his minions to soften the American people up along the low road--was all about dividing the country into us and them: us who are "really" American, us with traditional values, us with evangelical Christian faith, us with small town values, us who are pro-life (with the implication that the rest of America is pro-death), us with family values (with the implication that the rest of us hate our families), us with our white skin (oops--that one just showed up in the wide-angle shots--thank heaven for Bobby Jindal). Dividing American against American is unpatriotic, and Obama needs to call McCain and the Republicans on it.

Barack Obama began his campaign with a powerful theme of unity. He needs to contrast it starkly with the message of divide and conquer that the Republicans have used successfully since Nixon's "Southern strategy" of peeling white voters away from the Democratic Party through coded messages. I can't imagine a much more effective ad than one that took the "greatest hits" of the politics of division from the RNC Convention and ended with the simple words, "Dividing American against American for political gain isn't just politics, it's un-American. Patriotism is about standing as one people, under God, indivisible. That's the Pledge of Allegiance we all learn as children. Renew that Pledge on November 4. Put an end to the politics of hate and division."

6. Tell three stories about your opponent.

George W. Bush told three messages against John Kerry: that he was an elitist, that he was a flipflopper, and that he was a fake war hero who couldn't be trusted with American's security. All three stuck. It's difficult to make many more than three messages stick or they become noise, but it's a bad idea to rely on only one. The Obama campaign should have started branding McCain the day he became the presumptive nominee in March. Unfortunately, they waited until mid August. The Republicans did not return the favor: they began branding Obama as soon as it became clear that he was the likely nominee and have told multiple effective stories about him: That he is elitist and outside the mainstream, that he is unpatriotic, that he's a tax and spend liberal, that he lacks the experience to be commander-in-chief, and that he is an uppity, empty celebrity who doesn't know his place.

The Obama campaign is now telling a strong story about McCain, that he is four more years of Bush. They need to tell the same story about Palin. Aside from her right-wing policies, her refusal to answer a state congressional ethics inquiry and her operatives' apparent decision to do the same is yet another way that she's just like Bush.

There is another story the Obama campaign should tell that goes straight to the heart of McCain's central narrative, one that they just began telling today in a handful of states but need to tell everywhere: that he's not a straight talking maverick at all. You can't be both a maverick and a Bush Republican who bragged that he voted with the President over 90 percent of the time and picked a far-right running mate to the delight of his socially extreme base. McCain made a deal with the devil to win the Republican nomination, having gone so far as to describe Bush as one of our greatest presidents. He can't have it both ways. He can either appeal to his base or appeal to swing voters, but whichever way he swings, the Obama campaign needs to make it a lose-lose situation. They can't depend on the media to do it for them. That's what a campaign is for.

The third narrative that is essential to tell about McCain, particularly in light of the current economic situation, is the same one Bill Clinton told about George H.W. Bush in 1992: that he is out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans. With his seven houses, his heiress wife who thinks everyone in Arizona has a private jet, his chief economic advisor describing people who lose their jobs as whiners, and his own initial knee-jerk response to the mortgage crisis that he wasn't going to bail out the first-time homeowners who failed to show "personal responsibility" (not the unscrupulous lenders who have cost most of us 20 percent of the equity in our homes, and are now requiring middle class taxpayers to pick up the tab), Obama has all the ammunition he needs.

7. Flesh out the message of change with two or three signature issues.

Obama made a great start at putting the meat on the bones of "change" in Denver. I've been a strong advocate of running values-based, emotionally evocative campaigns that bracket "issues" within emotionally powerful messages rather than hiding our values in the fine print of policy prescriptions. The data are clear that candidates who think campaigns are a "debate on the issues" lose (the Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry approach). Obama tried the issues-based approach for months and then reversed course and starting making use again of his extraordinary capacity to inspire at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa, which set him on the path to nomination. He and his team made just the right move in fleshing out the substance of his agenda in Denver without boring voters silly with 12-point plans.

What he has not done, however, which every successful candidate has done since Ronald Reagan, is to offer two or three "signature issues" that tell the American public where his heart, loyalties, and values are and illustrate the ways he would lead. Bill Clinton used "ending welfare as we know it" and a strong economic argument (one signature issue co-opting the narrative of the right, the other addressing people's concerns about the first Bush recession) as his signature issues. In his first term, Bush used No Child Left Behind (stealing the traditional advantage of Democrats on education--a true irony for a semi-literate president to champion education reform) and faith-based initiatives (a move that endeared him to many right-wing and even moderate Christians, particularly evangelicals).

As yet, Obama hasn't taken any issue and "owned" it. This should have been part of the master narrative of his campaign from the start. He could readily have woven his own history of fatherlessness with a message co-opting the traditionally conservative (but quintessentially human) theme of family values with a plan to put inner-city men back in homes, colleges, and jobs and keep them out of a life of crime. That signature issue would have also inoculated him against racial stealth attacks.

With the economy, health care, energy, and national security all clear and present dangers, he could take any two or three of those issues and make them "his." Had he done this with energy, Democrats would have maintained the 30-point edge they had six months ago on energy that has now gone to a draw or deficit with McCain's disingenuous appeals to "drill here, drill now."

As someone who worked as a young man to help workers whose plants had shuttered their doors in the south side of Chicago, Obama could easily put together either a trade message with the theme, "I want to see the words 'Made in America' again," or a message about moving into a global economy with both a short-term strategy of helping displaced workers through difficult times and a long-term strategy of leading the world into a green economy and helping workers retool by creating public-private partnerships in which businesses work with local colleges and technical schools to retrain workers for better jobs for the future.

He could offer a signature issue about investing in our children's and our nation's future by making every dollar Americans put away for their kids' college tax deductible (instead of requiring middle class parents to put away post-tax income in a 529 account and offering them a $4000 tax credit that sounds trifling to middle class parents who know what tuition, housing, and meals actually costs) and by making every dollar they spend on childcare tax deductible (instead of the paltry amounts currently allowable as a tax deduction). Those plans would give tens of millions of voters tens of thousands worth of reasons to vote for good public policy.

If he wanted to break with his party, win moderate Republicans and independents, and try something new that might improve all of our schools, he could allow federal but not state or local tax deductions for middle class parents to send their children to the schools of their choice, including parochial schools. Doing so might well improve the quality of public education by increasing the ratio of dollars to students in public schools because it would reduce the number of students in public schools without cutting any state, local, or federal funding for education. It would also increase competition among schools and give parents more freedom of choice.

8. Remember that you have the most moving orator since Bill Clinton, and get competent debate coaches.

Obama is a magnificent orator who has underperformed in virtually every debate, with the possible exception of his last debate against Hillary Clinton. His performance against McCain at Rick Warren's church (even discounting for McCain's disappearance from the cone of silence) should have been a wake-up call that his campaign does not have the right people in the room coaching him. This is another standard Democratic error. Instead of recognizing that one consultant may be brilliant at organizing people and getting out the vote (which his chief strategist David Axelrod clearly is), the same advisor may not have the right expertise in coaching debate or television performances. In fact, it would be highly surprising if one person could do everything well in a campaign.

It is dumbfounding that the campaign has not brought in Paul Begala to lead the debate prep for Obama, and that they haven't asked Bill Clinton to play McCain in mock debates, since no one could do it better, and it would bring the former President into the campaign in a way that would both solidify their relationship and make optimal use of the former President's talents. Begala and James Carville are the only practicing Democratic consultants who have ever elected a Democrat to the presidency--twice--and although Obama might not feel as comfortable with Carville, whose bare-knuckles style would probably not be his cup of tea (green or black), he and Begala would be a natural combination. To my knowledge, Begala, Carville, and Clinton remain uninvolved in what will likely be the deciding moments of the 2008 campaign.

9. Fly into the eye of the storm, not away from it.

Underlying many of the problems that have plagued the Obama campaign in the last half of the primaries against Hillary Clinton and throughout the entire general election thus far is the standard Democratic predilection for running away from conflict instead of running toward it. Obama wrote a magnificent book about race in which he used his own story to talk about issues of race and class, and he delivered the greatest speech on race since "I Have a Dream." Yet he has run from race every time it has been mentioned since.

He and his team need to recognize and deal with the fact that when white people see his face, they see a black man. He knows that, because he wrote about it in his book. It is no accident that older Democratic voters had trouble with him in the primaries: Their deepest attitudes, particularly their unconscious one, were shaped in an era in which the only black people they encountered were below them, not above them. It will take conscious effort, insight, and careful research to identify the best ways to address their feelings head-on, and the Obama team has no time to waste. The same applies to middle-aged working class men, who have seen people of color promoted above them, and who harbor deep and real resentments for paying the price for the sins of their fathers (or, more accurately, the sins of the fathers of rich white boys, since punching a time card and working on an assembly line or in a mill is not what most of us would consider "privilege").

Our conscious values on race are our better angels on race. The fact that the Democratic Party has nominated, and the nation just might elect, a black man to be President of the United States, speaks to how profoundly most Americans' conscious values have changed since Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech 45 years ago. Most Americans consciously believe that discrimination based on the color of a person's skin has no place in America. But just beneath those values are latent, unconscious negative associations to black people, particularly young black men, which can be mobilized in stealth racial attacks and can be deadly to a campaign. The best way to address those latent feelings and associations is precisely the way Obama addressed them in his speech in Philadelphia: by bringing them into the open and talking about the elephant in the room. The more comfortable Obama shows he is with race, the more comfortable white voters will be with him. But won't the Republicans say he's playing the race card, you might ask? That's playing checkers. Think six moves ahead.

The same is true of gender. The Obama campaign appears to have decided that two male candidates at the top of the Democratic ticket can't touch a hair on Sarah Palin's head while she emasculates them with regularity because "women" won't like it or Republicans will cry sexism. Let the Republicans cry sexism, and propose legislation that eliminates it. That will shut them up in a heartbeat. Or call attention to their support for anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives that make it more difficult for women (who also happen to be men's wives and daughters) to break glass ceilings. Think chess.

10. Apply the same nuance to your own political decision-making as you do to policy.

Finally, the Obama team, and the candidate himself, need to look inward. For years Democrats have run from controversy, run from conflict, and run from aggression. Their consultants and pollsters have told them not to talk about this issue or that issue because it's "radioactive" (meaning that they haven't figured out how to speak clearly about the values that led them to take the stand they have taken). In this election year, for example, the Democrats should be running on abortion, not from it. They finally have opponents who are embracing the most unpopular version of the conservative stance, which makes no exceptions for rape and incest (which is the only logically consistent version of it, because if life begins at conception, that applies to life borne of rape). That position is at 15 percent in the polls. If Democratic consultants think that's radioactive, they need to recalibrate their political Geiger counters.

From a psychological standpoint, few actions are determined by a single motive. We may have one-man-one-vote in this country, but we rarely have one-man-one-motive. Are Obama and McCain motivated by ambition? Of course they are. Are they motivated by the desire to do what they believe is right for their country? Of course they are. One motive doesn't negate the other, although at times one can override the other.

Democrats have offered many lofty reasons for their failure to respond to thugs and bullies from the right with a bludgeon, some of which have merit, such as Obama's obvious desire to change the way politics is done, but all of these reasons are intermingled with fear and avoidance, and all of them project cowardice. Republicans have not just held an edge on national security for years because of the policy positions they assume. They have held an edge because they speak forcefully about their principles, not just on national security but on virtually every issue. Democrats, in contrast, equivocate and perambulate, and when confronted with cynical political ploys masquerading as legislation (such as the Iraq War resolution, or the FISA act), they tend to knuckle under for fear of being accused of being weak on whatever bogeyman the Republicans are deploying. Once again, that's playing checkers. The irony is that when Democrats knuckle under, they only reinforce the stereotype that they are weak and spineless.

You can take almost any position you want on vital issues of the day as long as it isn't the fetal position. Voters will forgive mistakes, but they won't forgive cowardice.

An instructive case was Obama's response to media stories on Palin's pregnant teenage daughter. When Obama spoke out in no uncertain terms against anyone using Palin's daughter's pregnancy as a political issue against her, he showed genuine anger and resolve in his voice, and he showed the public a side of him they too rarely see. Regardless of the merits of his position (Palin in fact conspicuously flew her sudden son-in-law-to-be to the Republican Convention to sit next to his bride-to-be to demonstrate their "family values" and turn a liability into yet another sign of her ideological purity to score political points), he projected strength and conviction, something Americans want and expect from their leaders.

There are two words Obama needs to keep in his mind over the next 60 days as he answers any question: strength and principle. If he emanates both, and keeps his answers strong, tight, and principled, he will likely be our next President.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 election.