Thursday, August 28, 2008

DNC Day Three: Obama Sighted

The Democratic Convention has finally gotten around to discussing the nominee, Sen. Barack Obama. Tonight was a good one for Democrats in general, although the performance of the Vice-Presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden, left much to be desired.

Credit the Democrats, they managed to turn the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama nomination controversy into a positive. The roll call of the states provided the backdrop. Sen. Hillary Clinton strode onto the floor of the arena to move that the convention nominate Obama by acclamation. It was good political theater, timed to occur during the evening news broadcasts. The roll call would not have been carried by the networks, so the stagecraft allowed Democrats to get Obama's historic nomination covered. Political junkies appreciate that kind of strategy.

Soon after came the speakers. Bill Clinton wowed the crowd like only he can at a Democratic convention. But the other main speakers of the night once again disappointed. So the nominee himself showed up in the arena to brighten things up, and take the focus off of his running mate.

President Clinton was introduced to raucous applause from the arena. He asked the crowd to "sit down" at least five times before beginning his speech. It was an excellent convention speech. None other than Karl Rove would later say that President Clinton "made the best case for Obama that has been given at this convention." Clinton declared Obama ready to be president, something Sen. Clinton could not or would not do last night. There was a lot of exaggeration and omission in Clinton's address. No mention of 9/11, for example. But his purpose was to drop the sword on the shoulders of Obama, and he accomplished that very well. Unfortunately, that was the end of the politically competent portion of the program for the Democrats; and for the second straight night, the speaker most talked about the day after will be a Clinton.

Sen. John Kerry spoke not long after Clinton and gave one of his characteristic downer speeches. His was an extremely bitter address, chock full of references to the 2004 election, which Kerry clearly has not gotten over. It must be a hard thing to lose the presidency, but it does not have to drive one to madness. Kerry has clearly chosen the latter. Of his great friend John McCain, who Kerry practically begged to run with him on the Democratic ticket four years ago, he had this to say.
"I have known and been friends with John McCain for almost 22 years. But every day now I learn something new about candidate McCain. To those who still believe in the myth of a maverick instead of the reality of a politician, I say, let's compare Senator McCain to candidate McCain.

Candidate McCain now supports the wartime tax cuts that Senator McCain once denounced as immoral. Candidate McCain criticizes Senator McCain's own climate change bill. Candidate McCain says he would now vote against the immigration bill that Senator McCain wrote. Are you kidding? Talk about being for it before you're against it."
That may have felt good for a little while, but the quick rebuke Kerry drew from Liz Mair, Online Communications Director for the Republican National Committee, is going to leave a mark.
"John Kerry devolved into self-parody tonight, when he explained that he was actually for John McCain before he was against him. At some point bitterness becomes a sickness."
Kerry questioned McCain's judgment on national security issues, claiming that Barack Obama was right on, of all things, the war in Iraq, and John McCain was wrong. That is the kind of boomerang political attack that only John Kerry can deliver. Anyone who is paying any attention knows that the troop surge John McCain advocated for a full year before it was implemented, and which Sen. Obama opposed and said would fail, has practically won the war in Iraq. But then, no one ever accused John Kerry of paying attention.

Kerry's performance was surpassed by Vice-Presidential nominee Joe Biden, but only barely. Biden was warmly and touchingly introduced by his son Beau, the Attorney General of Delaware. He may have been better off though, if he had come out, waved to the crowd, said thank you, and walked off. His speech was halting, replete with stumbles, and mined with dud applause lines. The audience never connected with him. To say that his description of America was not hopeful is an understatement.
Almost every night, I take the train home to Wilmington, sometimes very late. As I look out the window at the homes we pass, I can almost hear what they're talking about at the kitchen table after they put the kids to bed.

Like millions of Americans, they're asking questions as profound as they are ordinary. Questions they never thought they would have to ask:

Should mom move in with us now that dad is gone?

Fifty, sixty, seventy dollars to fill up the car?

Winter's coming. How we gonna pay the heating bills?

Another year and no raise?

Did you hear the company may be cutting our health care?

Now, we owe more on the house than it's worth. How are we going to send the kids to college?

How are we gonna be able to retire?

That's the America that George Bush has left us, and that's the future John McCain will give us. These are not isolated discussions among families down on their luck. These are common stories among middle-class people who worked hard and played by the rules on the promise that their tomorrows would be better than their yesterdays.
Nothing like a positive uplifting vision to win over votes.

Biden's attacks on McCain were not sharp. They were the same recycled accusations that McCain represents a third Bush term. The Democrats may have settled on that as their message coming out of this convention, but voters know John McCain as an independent minded politician who has bucked his party time and again. This attack dog VP nominee just won't hunt.

After the speech, Sen. Obama staged a walk-in to the arena, stepping on his running mate's time in the spotlight. He told the crowd that the convention had gone "pretty well so far" and informed them that the festivities would be moving to "Mile High Stadium," which was demolished in January 2002. At least Obama knew to come to Denver for the convention. Tomorrow is his acceptance speech. After two less than stellar days at the Pepsi Center, and an average Joe performance by his VP choice, the change of venue might be just what the Obama ordered.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

DNC Day Two: Hillary's Convention

The second night of the Democratic National Convention prior to Sen. Hillary Clinton's speech was nearly as unmemorable as day one. And an interesting pattern has emerged in all of the main speakers' remarks. Barack Obama is an accessory, an add-on, a superfluous reference tucked in on the end of a litany of the speaker's accomplishments and beliefs. There is almost no discussion of the nominee as a man separate and distinct from the speaker. Rather, he is a concept, an ethereal being, an abstraction. It is almost as if the speakers are deliberately trying to distance themselves from Obama, at his own convention.

Hillary Clinton was the star of the evening in a big way. So much so that she appears to have taken the convention by force, and will hold it for at least one more day.

Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania got things started with a thoroughgoing and dull speech in which he mostly talked about his father. Casey gets credit for mentioning his disagreement with Obama on abortion; and he at least tried to rile up the crowd with some decent attacks on the Bush Administration and John McCain. But the crowd wasn't entirely into it. They were anticipating greater things to come. Two hours in, David Gergen was once again on CNN, lamenting the lack of anything memorable happening in Denver.

Former Virginia Governor and likely its next Senator Mark Warner was the keynoter and he was dreadfully awful. It is actually hard to put into words just how bad, boring, and trivial his speech was. Warner must think he is a Senator already as his speech was full of incredible nothingness. He prattled on about how this was an election about the future, which he said is more important than a presidential election. He talked about his tenure as governor, praised his management of the state, bragged on his success in business, and just for good measure tossed in an Obama every couple of paragraphs or so. There was no energy in the arena during his address. Many view Warner as the 2012 front runner in the event of an Obama loss in November. Viewed in that light, this speech was his 2012 concession.

With Warner finished, anticipation in the hall began to grow for Sen. Clinton, the real headliner of the night. Before she took the stage, however, there was a speech from Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who demonstrated completely why she is not Barack Obama's running mate. There was also a surprise keynote from Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. His was an energy packed speech about energy policy. He was animated, connected with the crowd, and genuinely fun to watch. It was not the keynote listed in the schedule, but it was far and above a better one that Warner managed to deliver.

Then it was Hillary's turn. Clinton delivered a real stemwinder of an address, recounting her primary campaign, and pointedly not conceding. She delivered the requisite declarations of support for Sen. Obama. But in a twenty minute plus speech, Clinton only managed to mention him by name 10 times. Like the rest of the speakers, the mentions of Obama came not in the context of anything he would actually do as president, but in a "him too" kind of way. The typical formulation can be seen in this passage from the prepared text.

I ran for President to renew the promise of America. To rebuild the middle class and sustain the American Dream, to provide the opportunity to work hard and have that work rewarded, to save for college, a home and retirement, to afford the gas and groceries and still have a little left over each month...

Most of all, I ran to stand up for all those who have been invisible to their government for eight long years.

Those are the reasons I ran for President. Those are the reasons I support Barack Obama. And those are the reasons you should too.
Except that when she delivered it, she left out the last line. Sen. Clinton's speech was about her campaign, not the coming one. When it was over, Bill Kristol called it a "shockingly minimal endorsement of Barack Obama."

Barack Obama has no presence at this convention. He is not physically there, and he is not oft discussed. His name is used like a drug to placate the seething masses of delegates, administered in small enough doses to keep them wanting for more. But it never comes. Clinton stepped into this atmosphere, and took over. The convention is now about her. She is who everyone is talking about; and she will continue to be the topic after tomorrow night, with the roll call of the states and former President Bill Clinton's speech. Tonight, Clinton laid down a marker on 2012 and a gauntlet for Thursday night, when Obama will have to equal her performance. He had better be good or he will leave Denver with the nomination, but without the mantle of leader of the Democratic Party.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DNC Day One: Where was Barack Obama?

The first night of the Democratic National Convention is (mercifully) over, and even for a political junkie, this was difficult to watch. The after show reviews are coming in and a consensus appears to be building that this was a wasted night. CNN's David Gergen was the first to remark on this around 9 PM Eastern.
"We're two hours into this and so far, nothing of substance, nothing memorable."
That came after the tribute to Jimmy Carter and a brief appearance on the podium from the man from Plains. Carter did not speak. Earlier, Nancy Pelosi gaveled the convention to order with a speech that she must have deliberately written to take all the air out of the room. Unbelievably, her delivery was worse than her words, and it was all down hill from there.

The night was supposed to showcase a unified party rallying around the theme "One America." It was also supposed to belong to Michelle Obama, who addressed the convention in the prime speaking slot. But one man who was curiously absent from the festivities, even from his wife's speech, was the man for whom all of this grand production is supposed to have been planned: the actual nominee, Barack Obama.

Soon after Gergen's lament, Caroline Kennedy appeared to introduce a video tribute to Sen. Edward Kennedy. Her speech and the video were not much to write home about. But Sen. Kennedy wowed the assembled delegates when he came out and gave a very good, classic Kennedy speech full of vim and vigor. He pledged to the delegates that he would be in the Senate in January when President [McCain] is sworn in. Kennedy would become the star of the night.

Between Kennedy and Michelle Obama, however, the convention was turned over to a parade of dullards. Former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA) gave a very long, very boring speech on the great societal debates in American history. Somehow, the Civil War, the New Deal, the nuclear age, and the Reagan revolution have all combined to bring us to Barack Obama. Sen. Claire McCaskill's three very nice looking children came out to introduce their mother. The two girls flanked their brother, who did all the talking. So much for women's lib. McCaskill herself kept talking about the view from Missouri and gave an otherwise uninspired speech. She mentioned, oddly, that Barack Obama has "fought for equal pay for women," forgetting that the women on his own Senate staff are paid less than their male counterparts.

Last to speak was Michelle Obama. After a brief video introduction, and a short spoken one from her brother, Obama came out to thunderous applause and proceeded to begin talking about: herself, her family, her mother, her father, her kids, her job, her leaving her job, her hopes for the future, her policy proposals, her love for the country, her, her, her. Sen. Obama, the nominee, was almost nowhere present in this speech, except for when his wife was making it quite clear that he has a lot to live up to in her dad, or when she was dragging him along for the ride on her litany of beliefs. There were a lot of "I's" and not nearly enough "he's."

Halfway through the speech, one wondered just who is running for president, Michelle or Barack. Her line, "I love this country," received the greatest applause, a fact that should give Democrats pause. If you get a rousing standing ovation simply for declaring your love of country, something must be wrong. When she finished, Sen. Obama finally appeared, by video from Kansas City, although Carl Cameron later noted that at first he said he was in St. Louis.

At the end, the critics were left largely unimpressed. Juan Williams was overcome by the symbolism of it all. A female African-American on stage giving that speech, and the model black family that appeared afterwards drove him almost to tears. Bill Kristol remarked that Michelle Obama did not do a good job of introducing America to her husband. Nina Easton said the speech as too liberal. Fred Barnes, however, said that she was there to sell herself, not her husband, and she certainly accomplished that. Chris Wallace declared the first night "wasted." James Carville and David Gergen agreed. Karl Rove called it "a missed opportunity." He said that Michelle Obama gave a stump speech, and not a particularly good one. He correctly pointed out that viewers are not interested in Michelle Obama's favored policy positions. She isn't on the ticket. She was supposed to humanize her husband in the way only a wife can, and she failed to do that. Rove said that no one learned anything new about Barack Obama from his wife's speech, and that there was no feeling of warmth between the two of them that came through. That was her primary job, and she didn't deliver.

The next two nights of the convention do not promise much more exposure for Obama. Hillary Clinton speaks tomorrow, and Bill Clinton speaks on Wednesday. The Clinton's are not exactly known for their proclivity to share the spotlight. With tonight's performance leaving even Barack Obama himself wondering just where he was, Obama may have to get to Denver early just to get a little face time from his own convention.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Obama Playing Defense with Biden

Geography enthusiasts who watched the big Obama-Biden rally in Springfield, Illinois, yesterday were probably a bit curious to hear the town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, mentioned so often in relation to a man from Delaware. Together, Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden mentioned the town five times.

Joe Biden has roots in Scranton. He was born there in 1942. But Joe Biden hasn't lived in Scranton since 1953, 55 years ago. Joe Biden lives in Wilmington, Delaware, and has represented his home state in the Senate for 35 years. He grew up there, went to school there, raised his family there, and has become a fixture there in Wilmington-two and a half hours, 142 miles from Scranton.

So why is the Obama campaign trying to pass off a man from Wilmington, Delaware, as a Scrantonian? The answer may be Hillary Clinton.

Back in the Democratic primaries, Obama had a six-week layoff between the Texas and Ohio primaries and the Pennsylvania contest. He had six weeks to make the case to Pennsylvania Democrats that he was the best candidate for the nomination. Prior to losing Ohio and Texas, Obama had won eleven contests in a row and had Sen. Clinton reeling. But Clinton was able to resurrect her campaign in the working class and Midwestern towns of Ohio and Texas and looked to continue the comeback in Pennsylvania.

In the intervening six weeks, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright story broke which Obama addressed in his now famous speech on race relations. That address was delivered in Philadelphia. A second major gaffe came to light before the primary when Obama was quoted as telling a San Francisco fund-raiser audience that small-town people were "bitter" and "cling to "religion and guns and antipathy to people who aren't like them."

Obama lost Pennsylvania by 10 points on April 22nd. But more revealing was the way he lost. In every rural county in the state, Clinton bested Obama by at least 60-40. He lost whites in every age category, he lost churchgoers of every denomination and frequency of attendance, he lost every age group over 40, and he lost Catholics by as much as 50 points. The trend begun in Ohio and Texas carried through Pennsylvania to West Virginia and Kentucky. Obama was and remains very weak with working class whites.

That weakness is why the Obama campaign literally-to borrow a favorite Bidenism-tried to change the geographic map in its rollout of Joe Biden. The emphasis on Biden's Scranton birth, rather than his Wilmington life, are meant to give Biden the working-class street cred he will need to help Obama hold Pennsylvania. Obama performed very poorly in the Pennsylvania primary among voters that Democrats need to win in November. Joe Biden needs to win them back.

But as with many things in the Obama campaign, the campaign got it all wrong. Biden is the wrong messenger to send to the union halls of Scranton, Akron, Wheeling, and Flint. There is another prominent Democrat who hails from Scranton. One who has the qualities and connections with working-class whites and high school educated blue collar workers. One who has demonstrated an ability to draw those voters in large numbers, even after the ultimate result of the primaries was all but assured. That Democrat is Hillary Clinton. But Obama didn't, couldn't choose her for his running mate. That would have been too big an admission that he has no earthly idea how to connect with the lunch pail crowd. Better to try and redraw the map.

The Obama campaign is worried about Pennsylvania. The state went for Gore in 2000 by four points, and for Kerry in 2004 by 2.5. The Real Clear Politics average shows Obama leading by just under six points. But the last three polls put the race in the state under 5 points with the most recent showing a three point Obama lead. Obama is playing defense in Pennsylvania by picking Biden and trying to play him as a native.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Obama's Song of Himself

Ever since then Governor Bill Clinton answered the "boxers or briefs" question, presidential campaigns have from time to time become pre-occupied with pop-culture questions designed to demonstrate the candidate's hipness. Generally, they are harmless curiosities, even if they may actually provide some small subset of voters a reason to support or oppose a particular candidate.

But sometimes a candidate's answer to the iPod playlist question or the favorite book question can reinforce a narrative against him. And that is exactly what Barack Obama did when he submitted a list of his ten favorite songs to Blender magazine.

Obama used this to great effect during the primaries, when he chastised Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards for their self-serving answers to a debate question.

Obama poked fun at John Edwards and Hillary Clinton for their response to the "what is your weakness" question at the MSNBC debate. Obama said that he answered the question as an "ordinary person."

"Folks, they don't tell you what they mean!" exclaimed Obama.

"I thought that they meant 'what’s your biggest weakness?!' So I said 'well you know I don’t handle paper that well, you know, my desk is a mess, I need somebody to help me file and stuff all the time.'"

"So the other two they say well my biggest weakness is 'I'm just too passionate about helping poor people.' I am just too impatient to bring about change in America.'"

Obama joked, "If I had gone last I would have known what the game was. I could have said 'well you know I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don’t want to be helped. It’s terrible.'"
The exchange helped Obama reinforce the narrative that Clinton and Edwards were typical Washington politicians, unable to answer a simple question without trying to gain some political advantage.

But now that he is the nominee, Obama has fallen into the same trap. The list of Obama's favorite songs is mostly unremarkable, until you reach the last entry. Here's the list:

1. Ready or Not Fugees
2. What's Going On Marvin Gaye
3. I'm On Fire Bruce Spingsteen
4. Gimme Shelter Rolling Stones
5. Sinnerman Nina Simone
6. Touch the Sky Kanye West
7. You'd Be So Easy to Love Frank Sinatra
8. Think Aretha Franklin
9. City of Blinding Lights U2
10. Yes We Can
Obama actually listed a song written about himself and his campaign as one of his favorites.

Maybe Obama doesn't know 10 songs, and threw in the ode to the Senator from H.O.P.E.™ just to fill out the list. Maybe some staffer got a little carried away filling out the questionnaire. Or maybe the explanation is a bit more telling: namley, that Obama is quite arrogant. That observation was made by Blender's own resident political analyst, Girl Talk.

Weirdest pick?

Girl Talk: I couldn’t tell if it was cool or creepy for Obama
to have "Yes We Can." Maybe he’s in love with himself and wants to hear his
speeches over and over as collaged by

You go, Girl Talk!

Nothing against Girl Talk. He is probalby a pretty smart guy. But if he can notice that Obama couldn't help but express his enormously overinflated opinion of himself and his comparatively minor accomplishments, average voters can certainly notice as well. And that helps to set the emerging narrative on Obama.

The public does not really have a good handle on who Obama is despite the media coverage of his campaign. Voters will look to any little snippet of information they can find about Obama to try and get a handle on just what makes him tick. This little list, should it get some play, will have an impact. Voters will read that list and begin to wonder just what Obama has done that makes him so full of himself. And that will be a much tougher question for Obama to answer.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Barack Obama's Three and a Half Day Cure

The media coverage of yesterday's energy speech by Sen. Barack Obama has focused mainly on Obama's flip-flop on opening up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But that is really a dog-bites-man story. Hardly a day goes by anymore that Obama does not abandon one or another of his "consistently" held positions. Looking a little closer at the proposal, anathema to the press, reveals that Obama's plan to release 70 million barrels from the reserve is as insulting as it is cynical.

During the primaries, Sen. Clinton and Sen. McCain joined forces to call for a suspension of the 18.4 cent federal gasoline tax for the summer. Obama, the big populist, derided that proposal.

“We're arguing over a gimmick that would save you half a tank of gas over the course of the entire summer so that everyone in Washington can pat themselves on the back and say they did something.” [...]

“Well, let me tell you, this isn't an idea designed to get you through the summer, it's designed to get them through an election.”

Now, however, with his own election prospects dimming, Obama has made a proposal every bit as shallow and meaningless as he claimed the gas tax holiday was.

Let's run the numbers.

According to the Energy Information Agency, the United States uses about 20 million barrels of oil a day. Obama called for 70 million barrels of oil to be released from the SPR to help lower prices. Furthermore, he dressed up his proposal by specifically calling for light crude to be released, on the theory that it could be more easily refined into gasoline and thus have the greatest impact on prices. 70 million divided by 20 million is 3.5. So, Obama's answer to high gasoline prices is to release three and a half days worth of oil from the nation's emergency reserves.

But looking deeper, it gets worse. The helpful people at the EIA say that one barrel of oil makes about 20 gallons of gasoline. 70 million times 20 gallons equals 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline that would be added to the market by Sen. Obama's proposal. The Federal Highway Administration says that there were 199 million licensed drivers in the United States in 2004. That number went up by about 4 million drivers a year in the 1990s and 2000s, so we can safely assume that the actual number this year is at least 210 million. 1.4 billion divided by 210 million is 6.67. That is how much gasoline per driver that Sen. Obama would create by releasing 70 million barrels of oil from the SPR.

The average gas tank holds about 16 gallons of gas. Therefore Sen. Obama's proposal would provide each licensed driver with about 40% of a tank of gas. If Sen. McCain's gas tax holiday was worthless because it would only save consumers about "half a tank of gas over the course of the entire summer," how much worse is Obama's plan to give drivers less than half a tank once, and for only three and a half days? Moreover, the average price of a gallon of gasoline, according to the EIA, is about $3.90. That means that Obama's plan would save the average driver about $26. That is less than the $30 that Obama said the gas-tax holiday would save the average driver.

Sen. Obama would have been better off not flipping on the issue of releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The numbers don't lie. By his own standards, Sen. Obama's proposal is less than insignificant, worse than cynical, and dishonest in the extreme. Obama told the American people that releasing oil from the reserve would have an impact on gas prices in about two weeks. But that claim counts upon the ignorance of the audience. Like most liberal giveaways, Obama's largess is calculated to be just enough to make him look good, but not nearly enough to solve the problem.

Friday, August 1, 2008

David Axelrod Admits it's All About Race [UPDATED]

Barack Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrod went on Good Morning America this morning to address McCain campaign manager Rick Davis' asertion that Obama is playing the race card. Interviewer Chris Cuomo played Obama's comments from yesterday in reaction to McCain's brilliant "Celeb" ad in which Obama's readiness to lead the country is brought into question. Obama said, "What they're [Bush and McCain] going to do is try to scare you about me. He's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." Cuomo asked Axelrod what Obama meant by that.

But Axelrod's answer (1:35) contained a little more truth than he may have liked to admit. Axelrod was trying to explain that Obama was not saying McCain would use his race against him. Instead, he admitted that Obama himself has been using his race as a justification for his candidacy all along.

CUOMO: "What does that mean if it's not a suggesiton that his race is going to be used against him?"

AXELROD: "Well...look he's said...and by the way he's said this repeatedly as you've mentioned all across the country, he's not from central casting when it comes to candidates for President of the United States...he's young, he's new to Washington, yes he's African-American, and...uh so this is nothing new."
Those are the three justifications for Obama's candidacy, according to its chief architect, David Axelrod. Obama should be elected president because he's young, he's inexperienced, and, "yes he's African-American." Just don't call Obama on it. That would be using his race against him.

UPDATE 16:30: The Obama campaign now admits Obama was talking about race when he accused McCain and Republicans of trying to scare voters.

Obama's camp initially denied the remark was a reference to Obama's race. [...]

"He was referring to the fact that he didn't come into the race with the history of others," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday. "It is not about race."

But Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, acknowledged on "Good Morning America" Friday that the candidate was referring, at least in part, to his ethnic background. When pressed to explain the comment, Axelrod told "GMA" it meant, "He's not from central casting when it comes to candidates for president of the United States. He's new to Washington. Yes, he's African-American."

That seemingly obvious reference sparked the first real fireworks between the two camps as backers of both candidates accused the other of trying to subtly inject race into the presidential contest.