History will come knocking this evening in Denver in just a few hours. In all likelihood I will be in tears. A stadium full of Americans are going to launch the presidential bid of 47 year-old bi-racial man and his black wife and mixed-race kids and his white Catholic running mate with his white Catholic family. Doesn't matter who says what, whether the phony columns adorning the stage are the right size, what camera angles are chosen, whether the sound system works properly. There is no rain that can rain out this moment in American history. Thank you Barack Obama, and your brilliant campaign staff, for pulling this off. All respect to you.
The pressure on Senator Obama is difficult to conceive. Four years ago this guy was an Illinois state legislator. Do you know any state legislators? It is not a very glamorous job. It's like, nowhere, on the political map. City council members are often more powerful. That was 2004 folks. Political skills? Barack Obama is in a league all his own. Pressure? Are you kidding? This guy is an ice cube in a field of fire.
This is why I and a multitude of other Americans held street signs for him, made all those calls, walked all those precincts, and gave him that huge pile of money. And this is why I, like so many others, are willing to cut him some slack when he falters. The political reality, however, is that he has no margin for error. The poll numbers are not what we hoped for. Why that is, how it is possible that half of the American electorate prefers John McCain... well, don't get me started. But there it is.
And Obama has faltered. I know many readers think I shouldn't write that, as if they thnk that if we just don't say it then it won't be true. But there it is.
Not so long ago I wrote that a "perfect political storm" seemed to be forming around Obama: his own charisma, public anger at Bush, demographic changes in political battlegrounds states around the country, generational shifts, and more. Not surprisingly, Obama has had difficulty keeping all these ducks in a row, and the perfect political storm has started to unravel.
At this point I am supposed to talk about the "unfair" McCain ads, the late arrival of the Clintons to the Obama party, the slant of the press, and just racism in general. But those are the facts of American political life. They are not a surprise. You have to win in spite of them, or you don't win at all.
And Obama was winning in spite of them. But then he made a series of errors, beginning with opting out of public campaign financing. It was a cocky move. He turned down $84.1 million in public money, believing he could raise three times that on his own. But raising such a Herculean sum required that his campaign switch gears. Instead of relying on small Internet contributions which freed up the Senator to be a "different kind of politician" who didn't spend half his time courting the very rich, the campaign had to start selling face time with Barack for $30k a pop. And this was just the first of a series of high-profile reversals of positions that had marked him as "different:" government surveillance, offshore drilling, and more. As Arianna Huffington wrote, Obama was "undercutting his brand." And suddenly, the poll numbers didn't look so good. Even worse, his vaunted fundraising machine isn't holding up to the strain he put on it by leaving $84 million free public dollars on the table.
It could have been different. Obama could have taken the public money, relied on small Internet donations, skipped the high-donor fundraisers and spent all that time with the working Americans he has now brought Joe Biden in to help him reach out to, and rode into the convention as the Uncontested Champion of Getting Money Out of Politics. That was all there for him. But none of that is happening now.
The campaign's answer to all this is that Obama is still a "different" politician, just different in a different way: he is post-partisan. His position reversals, far from indicating politics as usual, signal how he is going to lead the country out of partisan. This, it is said, is the real Obama, after all a cautious and thoughtful man who prides himself on seeing both sides and finding common ground. But the political reality was that it way far too soon to put offshore drilling on the negotiating table. That is, too soon unless the political persona you are trying to create is that of the Consummate Deal Maker.
When history comes knocking, it rarely calls on people as they are. Those who rise to the occasion must also rise out of their own natural proclivities. Consummate Deal Maker is not a job on offer just now. If that is the job he insists on applying for, he won't get hired.
Martin Luther King was a similarly cautious individual who became far more confrontational than his personal instincts would have suggested. But he rose to an historic occasion, and his leadership relied in large part on how he was willing to honestly put the tension between his cautious nature and the demands of the moment on public display. Robert Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt also come to mind as politicians who rose to historic occasions in ways that ran counter to many of their own instincts.
Tonight, Barack Obama will have the chance to rise to this moment, in front of a stadium of Americans who passionately, deperately want to him to succeed. And many many more watching at home. I will be one of those. Please Barack, knock this one out of the park.
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