The Calculations of Barack Obama

Barack Obama the naïve sapling is out, replaced – for the time being at least – by a different caricature: the cunning opportunist, wrapping himself in the mantle of reform in ruthless and amoral pursuit of the White House.

The image began taking hold in the media last week, when Obama rationalized his way out of a previous commitment to make a good-faith effort at participating in the public financing system for the general election.

Given his earlier cutesiness on Nafta, his now infamous 130 “present” votes in the Illinois legislature and his penchant for blaming his staff for his own mistakes, the campaign funding flap could serve as a tipping point in the media’s portrayal of Obama. Something very similar happened to Jimmy Carter at this same point in his victorious 1976 campaign, when a media that had watched his stunning run through the Democratic primaries with fascination and awe suddenly began demanding specificity.

The Republicans see a real opportunity here. The party’s familiar public faces fanned out over the weekend to play up this new caricature: McCain and surrogate adviser Carly Fiorina on Face the Nation, Representative Eric Cantor on CNN’s Late Edition, and, providing by far the most polished and indignant twist on the G.O.P.’s talking points, Senator Lindsey Graham on Meet the Press.

“He seems to be willing to say or do anything for the moment to advance his cause,” Graham said. “And his cause is to win the election. It’s not to change this country, and that’s sad.”

If the Republican drumbeat continues and the media adopts a more cynical filter for Obama’s strategic moves and policy pronouncements, it’s not hard to imagine this perception taking hold among the masses – especially if Obama himself plays into it. And in theory, that should be devastating for him, particularly if John McCain is able to maintain his own reputation for political independence and courage.

But maybe not. To read some of the criticism of him in the past week is to believe that Obama has broken new ground in the chutzpah department. “Even Bill Clinton,” David Brooks wrote in a widely distributed column last week, “wasn’t smart enough to succeed in politics by pretending to renounce politics.”

Perhaps Clinton didn’t, but Carter certainly did. In his 1976 campaign, Carter presented himself very much like Obama does now, as a unifying postpartisan reformer bursting onto the scene to rescue a dispirited country from deep political, cultural and ethnic polarization. Carter carried himself as the second coming of Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith, a simple, honest peanut farmer from Georgia as outraged and bewildered as the rest of America at the ways of Washington. His platform was rooted in feelings, not a laundry list of policy proposals.

“I’ll never lie to you,” Carter promised a country still recovering from Watergate.

In reality, Carter and his campaign were anything but wide-eyed naïfs. He had set his eyes on the presidency years earlier and set out to run while the 1972 campaign was still going on. Guided by his young aide Hamilton Jordan, Carter executed a sophisticated strategy that recognized and exploited Americans’ yearning for a leader in whom they could trust and from whom they could draw inspiration.

It took the media and the Republicans just about as long to catch on to Carter’s craftiness as it did for them to begin exploring Obama’s Machiavellian side. In the summer and fall of ’76, reporters attempted day after day to pin Carter down on the most politically sensitive issues of the day — abortion, busing and the like. And day after day he frustrated them with his evasiveness. Republicans howled, sounding very much like Lindsey Graham did on Meet the Press.

What’s most noteworthy about the Carter case is that eventually press frustration and the Republicans’ attacks did trickle down to the masses, and voters did conclude that Carter was not being straight with them on every issue. The election ended up being close – a series of unrelated missteps in the fall also took a toll on Carter – but voters still ended up electing Carter, even though they’d concluded that he was much more of a political animal than he presented himself as being.

That’s because the attacks did not fundamentally alter the public’s view of Carter: They liked him personally and found him honest and trustworthy at the outset of the campaign, and they still did at the end. In essence, voters in 1976 said that they understood that in a campaign, candidates have to act like politicians.

They sent a similar message in 1992, when Clinton unseated George H. W. Bush. In the spring of ’92, after Clinton emerged from a host of scandals as the Democratic nominee, Bush and the G.O.P. believed he would be utterly unelectable, so miserable were Clinton’s poll numbers when it came to questions of honesty, trustworthiness and basic character. Clinton’s need to have it both ways on every issue became an immortal punch line when he responded to a question about whether he’d ever tried marijuana by saying, “Yes. But I didn’t inhale.”

But he was elected comfortably because voters, as they began to meet him through television, warmed up to him personally. They never forgot about all of the baggage that he accrued, but his comforting onscreen presence and his masterful communication skills (on display in the three fall debates) thoroughly convinced voters that his character flaws were insignificant compared to his intelligence, his understanding of the country’s problems and the new energy he’d bring to Washington.

Voters are inured to presidential nominees from both parties who pander, flip-flop and equivocate on the campaign trail. If that’s all they see – a typical politician – then that candidate is in trouble, as John Kerry and Al Gore can attest. But Obama is an entirely different candidate, the first Democratic nominee since Clinton – and the second since Carter – that most people instinctively like.

He and his campaign have calculated that a broken promise here and there won’t fundamentally change that. They’re probably not wrong.

The Calculations of Barack Obama