Barack Obama’s Iraq speech on July 15 was comprehensive, forward-looking and unapologetic.
Which, for some of his supporters, prompted a basic question: What took him so long?
“I’ve been dealing with people sending me e-mails about his faith-based initiatives, and asking me about his statements about choice, his various votes and gun issues—this is now a whole month of this now,” said one major fund-raiser for Mr. Obama, describing some of the many gripes his liberal supporters have had with him during his transition to the general election. “This is the first big speech as the presumptive nominee that shows that he is ready to lead.”
As recently as the evening before Mr. Obama’s address at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., some of his staunchest supporters were expressing frustration about what they considered to be a broadly unimpressive post-primary performance.
As one bundler put it on July 14, the day before Mr. Obama’s major foreign policy address in Washington: “No one seems to understand what’s going on here.”
It hasn’t simply been a question of progressive loyalists being dismayed by a perceived general-election shift to the center. There’s some of that, certainly—see Mr. Obama’s unprompted criticism of a months-old ad campaign by MoveOn.org, or his Senate vote, against most of his party, on a bill to authorize government wiretapping.
More basically, there has been a sense that despite Mr. Obama’s massive material and infrastructural advantages over John McCain—an unprecedentedly large network of online donors, ridiculous high early staff levels in non-swing states, Howitzer-vs.-mosquito responses to opposition ads—he has too often found himself in a reactive posture, answering questions about his own positions rather than raising them about his opponent’s. Perhaps coincidentally, a solid-looking advantage Mr. Obama enjoyed in national polls shortly after the primary had more or less vanished in recent days, before recovering somewhat. (A Quinnipiac poll released on July 15 showed him back up by nine points.)
“I don’t think he has defined himself,” said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster. “I don’t think he has offered a contrast between himself and McCain. I don’t think either of them has been particularly compelling. But let’s just say that one would have thought that Obama would have had a lead that would be closer to 10 points.”
Before the foreign policy speech in Washington, at least, Mr. Obama’s apparent efforts to defy the McCain campaign’s liberal caricature of him merely served to invite charges of waffling, if not outright flip-flopping, designed to dilute his promise of “a different kind of politics.”
In the past month, Mr. Obama abandoned his commitment to public financing in order to avoid restrictions on his ability to raise massive sums online.
Normally, a staunch defender of abortion rights, Mr. Obama seemed to reject a mental health exception to the ban on late-term abortions in an interview with a Christian magazine.
He commended the Supreme Court’s reading of the Second Amendment to protect individual gun ownership rights.
In a speech about patriotism, he deliberately placed distance between himself and the adoring left-leaning Netroots by attacking MoveOn.org for last September’s “General BetrayUs” ad.
His vote in favor of a Bush-administration-endorsed version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act further infuriated online liberals to the point that his own Web site became a forum for grievances.
And Mr. Obama’s July 3 remarks that he was willing to “refine” his Iraq position to reflect the realities on the battlefield, while not substantively different from his earlier positions, led to charges of flip-flopping from the left and right, first prompting a follow-up press conference to “try this again,” then on July 9, a petulant-sounding explanation at a town-hall event that his critics “haven’t been listening” closely enough, and then, on July 14, an Op-Ed in The New York Times restating his position on withdrawal.
Each clarification from the campaign, or from the candidate himself, came to seem, as one donor put it, like an “apology du jour.”
Responding by e-mail, Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro wrote: “The general election offers a different set of contrasts than the primary did, and it brings a focus to some new issues. But Obama’s approach, and his positions, are the same as they have always been.”
On July 14 on the Daily Kos Web site, whose regular contributors have switched in large numbers from worshipful to sharply critical in the past couple of weeks, a blogger named Slinkerwink responded to an announced revamping of the Obama communications team on July 14 by writing, “I’m tired of how largely reactive the Obama campaign has been in controlling the media narrative of this race,” before going on to excoriate the press shop for a tendency toward long-windedness.
Of course, this all should be put into some perspective. Criticism from the “base” is a fact of life. The national polls will inevitably bounce back—Mr. Obama’s lead will probably re-settle for the near future somewhere back in the
non-statistically-insignificant range. And while the ploddingly cautious style of his general-election campaign may get poor reviews in the press, Mr. Obama may reasonably decide not to care: It’s a Democratic year, and it’s not at all crazy to think that he can run a boring campaign and still win.