Obama is on course for victory. But he isn’t ready for the White House

Although McCain could still theoretically win, the Democrat candidate looks set for glory, says Christopher Caldwell. But Obama has even less to say about the economic crisis than his rival, and has prospered by keeping quiet on controversial issues

29 October 2008

Two Sundays ago, I was sitting in the café in the Borders on L Street in Washington, a table away from a couple of middle-aged black men who were discussing politics over cups of coffee and great piles of books. One of them, wearing a black T-shirt with a Union logo on it and the kind of motley pillbox hat that was popular during the Afrocentric clothing fad of the early 1990s, raised his voice. ‘If they steal it,’ he said, ‘brothers is gonna riot.’ The ‘they’ were Republicans. It was the presidential election and the diagnosis was unsurprising. The belief is widespread among Democrats of all hues, views and regions that Republicans never win elections legitimately. They must either lie to the public or manipulate the vote. My neighbour seemed to anticipate some tampering with the automatic tallying machines made by the Diebold company, a staple subject on left-wing talk radio.

Well, there’s scant danger of that, I thought. That evening’s Hotline poll showed Barack Obama with a solid 5-point lead — and Obama was beating John McCain in states without which no Republican can win. Since then, the signs of a landslide have multiplied. Obama is up by 2:1 margins in New York and California. Twice as many Obama supporters nationwide claim to be very enthusiastic about their candidate. Eleven million people have voted early, thanks to liberalised absentee ballot rules, and they lean Obama’s way. In New Mexico, 69 per cent of the early voters are registered Democrats. In Georgia, blacks (who favour Obama 95 per cent to 5) account for more than a third of early ballots. A quarter of a million absentee ballots have been cast in Obamaphilic metropolitan Cleveland alone. And Obama is wiping McCain out in both fundraising and television ad buys. Democrats have roughly an even chance of acquiring 60 seats in the Senate and hence a filibuster-proof majority that would allow them to work their will unimpeded.

But an unsettling thought occurred to me in that bookstore: What if the polls are totally wrong? What if the country is like a big New Hampshire, where the Democratic nomination race was expected to end last January, but didn’t? Back then, polls showed Obama beating Hillary Clinton by roughly 10 points. She beat him by 3. Racism, though often adduced, needn’t be the cause of such polling confusion. It could, on the contrary, be a deferential reluctance to rain on the parade announced for months in the nation’s leading newspapers. Whatever the cause, it remains possible to imagine John McCain winning the election — perhaps while losing the popular vote.

If it is now highly unlikely that enraged urban voters will set America’s cities alight, we can thank the incompetence, confusion, and surprising unsuitability to the job of president that McCain has shown in recent weeks. He looks past it. McCain’s public meetings look like the reunions the second world war generation used to have in the 1970s. Oddly for a 73-year-old politician, McCain spends much of his time in the company of people older than himself. He declared victory in the Republican primaries with the 81-year-old Senator John Warner nodding behind him; he was introduced in Dayton, Ohio this week by the 73-year-old former housing secretary Jack Kemp. A thorn in his side is the 83-year-old Republican Senator Ted Stevens, who was convicted on ethics charges this week.

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And the financial crisis that erupted this autumn, bringing a trillion-dollar-plus bailout package in its train, seems to call for an infusion of new ideas. Suddenly, McCain’s small-government rhetoric has become a penny stock. He has reached the top of his party’s hierarchy at the moment when its principles have been discredited. When McCain’s trusted ally Lindsey Graham describes him as a man who ‘will keep your taxes low, and rein Washington spending in’, who is he kidding? Dick Zimmer, the Republicans’ doomed New Jersey senatorial candidate, makes similar noises: ‘I start with the principle it’s not my money or Congress’s money to spend. It belongs to the people who earned it.’ Not when the economy is running on trillions of dollars of foreigners’ money, it doesn’t. At such a time, McCain’s programme for trillions in new tax cuts sounds surreal. Republicans found a simple policy to replace the Democrats’ old formula of tax-and-spend. It’s called: spend.

That need not mean it is the Democrats’ moment. They are not ‘ready’. They have merely picked up a mandate to govern the way you would pick up a banknote dropped in the street. Barack Obama has had even less to say about the banking crisis than McCain has — although he has enlisted Warren Buffett, Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin and other knowledgeable advisers, where McCain has relied on partisan hacks. On the whole, Americans prefer Obama’s plans for the economy to McCain’s. But this preference is an artefact of partisanship, rather than a policy judgment. Democrats prefer Obama’s money plans, by 89 to four, and Republicans prefer McCain’s, by 83 to ten. But Independents favour McCain by 41-37.

This is because Democrats don’t have any fresh ideas, either. Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has opined more than once that ‘the consumer is the backbone of the US economy’. This would seem to promise a permanent ‘stimulus’ package — any plan is all right as long it involves King Consumer getting more than he paid for. So what is allowing Democrats to sweep everything in their path? In part, an ability to keep mum about a range of things they ardently desire but which the voters can’t stand: gay marriage, late-term abortions and gun control would be a good start to the list.

A couple of key moments changed the face of this election. The first came on 3 June, when McCain chose to give a speech at exactly the moment Obama was accepting the Democratic nomination. This was a too-clever-by-half attempt to seize control of the news cycle. It backfired. ‘This is our time,’ Obama told an arena full of enraptured Minnesotans, ‘our time to turn the page on the policies of the past.’ McCain, meanwhile, stood in front of a green wall in a sad room in Kenner, Louisiana, blinking, smiling woodenly, and laboriously reading a speech whose most memorable line was: ‘We should be able to deliver bottled hot water to dehydrated babies.’ A similar false step came at the height of the credit crisis, when McCain announced that he would suspend campaigning and skip a debate scheduled with Obama. It didn’t look statesmanlike. It looked chicken.

The pivotal event of the campaign — and possibly even of this political era — was McCain’s selection of the brassy, pretty, provincial Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. It has been a catastrophe, for one obvious reason: the intervention of the credit crisis. At a speech in Virginia this week before a like-minded crowd, Palin attacked Barack Obama’s fiscal policy by saying, ‘You can either do the math or go with your gut … and either way you come to the same conclusion.’ Well, if you come to the same conclusion, why bother with the math? There may be democratic electorates that like this philosophy, but not many that can survive a credit crisis with it.

Two things must be said about the Palin pick. The first is that Obama hardly did better. He was courageous enough to address the entire electorate (rather than just his party) during the primaries, and to deny the vice-presidential slot to Hillary Clinton (whose ambitions would have destroyed his presidency)
. But the Biden pick was an attempt to play it safe. Like Palin, Biden came to power only because the US Senate allows people from small states to rise through a kind of rotten borough system. Like Palin he is sheltered from direct encounters with news media. A rambling defence of Obama that he gave in North Carolina showed why: ‘They said Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a real Christian.… They said Abraham Lincoln wanted to take away individual rights. Ladies and gentlemen, they said Franklin Roosevelt would destroy the American system of life. Sound familiar?’ Of course, Jefferson wasn’t a real Christian, Lincoln did suspend habeas corpus, and FDR did destroy the system he inherited in 1933 (which is why Mr Biden’s party reveres him). Like Palin, Biden would not have been chosen in the new era that began with the credit crisis.

The second thing to be said is that Palin nearly won McCain the election. McCain had a problem with the working-class Christian part of his base. He could not count on them because he had been too bipartisan on such matters as immigration and campaign finance reform. Palin, with her religious invocations, with her call to ‘Drill, Baby, drill!’, with her attacks on ‘pundits’, fixed that. Before McCain picked Palin, he was losing. After he picked her, he was winning.

But the Palin pick was the electoral equivalent of an atomic bomb. It was one of those tactics that turns into a strategy. What the Palin pick did was to unleash a latent class tension in American life and turn the two parties, previously somewhat socially mixed, into vehicles of social classes. Prominent intellectuals who once leaned rightward sorted themselves into the Obama camp. So did most north-eastern Republicans. The party has focused on its proletarian rump. Rallies have grown more strident, with howls of ‘Communist!’ when Obama’s name is mentioned. McCain singled out an Ohio man — ‘Joe the Plumber’ — who had buttonholed Obama as he canvassed his neighbourhood. Soon McCain and Palin were building a following of tradesmen with sobriquets out of children’s books: Tito the Builder, Suzanne the Sandwich-Maker. There have been a lot of books lately urging Republicans to think more about the interests of their lower-middle-class base. That is a problem that is going to take care of itself.

The Democrats are now the partisan home of the upper crust of the American meritocracy, of the credentialled classes, the classes that believe every endeavour is some variety of IQ test. USA Today did a review of fund-raising data and discovered that Obama dominates fundraising among the leaders of ‘finance, insurance, real estate, health, communications and law’. His campaign has run through hundreds of millions more than McCain’s, and will spend a quarter of a billion dollars on television alone before this election is over. Obama has far more than twice as many ads up in Colorado, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Florida, he has run 18,909 ads to McCain’s 5,702. The Democratic party is the vehicle through which, after a populist interlude, the governing classes are proposing to take their country back. Obama is a restoration candidate but that doesn’t mean he has a plan.

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Show comments
  • john problem

    But newly elected leaders anywhere rarely have experience or training to do the new job.
    At least, Obama will have the stamina to address a failing economy, enemies abroad, global anti-Americanism, etc, whereas McCain might not. In which case one would have someone even less prepared for the job.
    “Shucks! I pressed the wrong button! Doggone! Lookit that missile go! Betcha they’re gonna know when that one arrives, huh? Say, General Er-whatsyername, what was it aimed at?”

  • American Voter

    Despite the article’s title, there is little comment on Barack Hussein Obama’s total unsuitability for the position of President of the US. In other words, a typical Old Media hit job against the opposition, in support of their lame choice, who would not be able to stand if subjected to critical analysis. So, for the benefit of those who might wonder just what Obama does stand for, and against, here is a video, largely in his own words:


  • Kerry

    So America doesn’t see itself through its own values any more.

    It sees itself through the eyes of the Middle East (full of hate) and Europe (full of grovelling) and thinks this will change its fortunes.

    Obama is simply the modern day snake oil salesman with his claptrap about ‘the highest hilltop’, ‘change the world’ and so on.

    Dave Cameron tried two syllables of this with his ‘sunshine’ line and it went down like a lead balloon. Rightly, too.

    Yet no-one in the mainstream media says squit about Obama’s florid hyperbole.

    As eerie as I find Obama, the press deference towards him scares me even more.

  • Water

    Yesss…and let’s have the reverend associate with his finger on the button (but of course he only fraternizes with such men, thus we should put him at the helm of the civilized world). As for spurious arguments against when we looks back at some of the blog entries of late in opposition it seems like anything other then hot air against the man. In actuality if somebody had anti-American sentiments Obama would be the person to side with.

  • alan

    A nothing article. Not well done.

  • Laurie Macdonell-Sanchez

    Brilliant analysis. Alas, such honesty is no longer possible in the American press anymore.

  • Augustus

    Obama has managed to disassociate himself from the race card thanks to the help of the American established media. But he has been shown to have been a party to actions designed to use ‘race’ as a means of pressurizing banks to lend hundreds of millions of dollars to racial minorities who were often not creditworthy.

    Madeline Talbott, who was head of ACORN in Chicago, and who was the pioneer of sub-prime mortgages, was so impressed by Obama, who worked there as a community organizer in the early 1990s, that she asked him to teach her employees.
    After becoming a lawyer, he defended ACORN on many occasions, even winning a case against Citibank to get risky mortgages approved in 1995. He helped ACORN to get the Freddie Mac and Fannie May rules changed so that more sub-prime loans could be made available, which Bill Clinton subsequently approved. No wonder he has kept quiet on the credit crunch, he played a significant part in its development.

  • Water

    Still sticking with my initial assertion.

  • Tony Gonzalez

    Sure Obama may not be ready for the White House, then again, who really is? Tell you one thing though, he’s certainly more prepared for the executive challenges of the U.S. Presidency than the current occupant.

    George W. was elected solely on the basis of his last name and not much else. He was (and remains)a “concoction” birthed by the leadership of the Republican party, and as such, was (and remains) sorely lacking in intellect, as well as in experience. A quick sojourn as Governor of Texas (a not very challenging job akin to a scout master) and he’s painted as qualified. I’ll take my chances with Obama. He certainly can’t do worse.

  • Water

    I’m sure McCain would say he is ready.

  • brenda u.s.

    McCain is 72, not 73. John McCain turned 72 on August 29 , 2008.

  • Water

    Certainly one point worth noting.

  • Water

    One hell of a point I must admitt, well picked up.

  • PT

    One thing that really bothers me about Obama is the likelihood that any opposition to his projects, or legeslation, is going to be branded “racist”. This is even worse than saying something is “unpatriotic”. By the way Tony, considering you’re obvious distain for Bush the Younger, I wouldn’t have thought using him as an example of an inexperienced leader gives much solice. Bush at least was Governor of Texas, which is more governing experience than Obama does – and you also knew more or less what he was and how he saw the world. I dare say that’s one reason why you voted against him. Obama is a big question mark.

  • Arminius

    Yes, during a period of economic upheaval it’s always a good thing when voters give absolute power to a charismatic demagogue, who came from nowhere and whose friends are virulent firebrands. I mean, what harm ever came of that?

  • Jack Peverill, Sarasota, FL, USA

    I found this rather bemused analysis to be refreshing. Maybe in some cases, getting out of the smoke-filled room and breathing some fresh air makes sense, and this Brit is able to distance himself from this whole mess. Before you decide whether you like him or not(ie whether he fits your own biases), bear in mind that he actually takes a stiff jab at both parties, and in the process seems to come up with something, and it is not too encouraging. He does not mention many “issues”, but points out how many issues are avoided by the two contending sides As we near the end of this interminable drama, try to remember that beyond all the bullshit there still is reality or a number of realities, and we have a lot ahead of us and it won’t be talked away or dismissed by the aforementioned BS, soothing though it may be to the witnesses.

  • JohnAnt

    “Obama dominates fundraising among the leaders of ‘finance, insurance, real estate, health, communications and law’.”
    And all of them simply contributing the $600m with no thought of self or financial return?

  • PA Refgirl

    Mr. Caldwell’s main complaint seems to be that Obama has failed to do or say anything egregiously stupid. It may not make for interesting press, but I like that in a candidate. And after eight years of egregious stupidity in the White House, I will certainly appreciate that in a President. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, is really prepared for the economic mess that our newest president will inherit. But I believe that Obama is less dogmatic, smarter, and generally better suited to cope with this crisis than McCain would be.

  • Claire Solt PhD

    This author has a very odd sense of relevance. He ascribes great meaning to little things long forgotten. Put him back on a reporter’s beat.

  • uffa

    It’s all very well for Europeans to be Olympian about America’s struggle to Do The Right Thing by an unqualified Black candidate cunningly put forward by far left members in a left-wing party that has in this election a natural advantage. Nothing can touch him: not illegal fundraising, terrorist connections, hidden chapters in his background, racist mentors. But don’t crow. If America suffers, so will you.

  • Davidicus.

    I don’t know who Christopher Caldwell is but this article is frankly, complete tripe. We’ve heard all this before–the Democrats are the “eliteist” party. Obama is an elitist, presumably beacuse he is an intelligent man. Tired and desparate cliches, Caldwell, from a partisan hack. The Spectator should have a higher editorial standard.

  • Vivian

    The reason Obama is winning is the Republicans are running on stale stale stale ideas they won’t change. These ideas have become entrenched in the GOP platform platform as if they were gifts from God. Even my family, a bunch of very conservative “folks” are going to vote for Obama because they think there won’t be a country left if they don’t.

  • Water

    Thank God they won’t change on certain things.

  • Apres Ski

    Bush43 had even less experience than Obama . . . and look at the mess he left us!

    At least with Obama, we know he’ll have patience and not be grumpy, mean, or short tempered in negotiations

  • Hayward Maberley

    Mr Caldwell
    How true that…“Republicans found a simple policy to replace the Democrats’ old formula of tax-and-spend.It’s called:spend”
    Is this not just following in the footsteps of “The Gipper”?
    For it was in President Reagan’s terms of office followed by that of President Bush that both the deficit and the National Debt started on their ascent or descent, which ever you wish to look at it.
    In 1981, shortly after taking office, Reagan complained of “runaway deficits” that were then approaching $80 billion, or about 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. Within only two years, however, his policies had succeeded in enlarging the deficit to more than $200 billion, or 6 percent of GDP. Under the “fiscally responsible” Republicans, from when Reagan took office, the National Debt standing at $995 billion from the Carter era, by the end of the Bush presidency, had exploded to $4 trillion.
    Clinton managed hold/wind them both back returning the
    budget to a surplus of some US$280 billion. The National Debt, in 1980-1990 under Reagan and Bush Republican Administrations had climbed as a % of GDP from 26% to 42%. Under Clinton it fell to 35%, It is currently heading north of 38%.
    The Faux Texan and current encumbrance in the White House and the Republicans have managed to set another unenviable record. This in two terms as President and not forgetting that the Republicans had control of the House and Senate until the start of 2007.
    That record is their success in outdoing even “The Gipper” in “growing” both the deficit and the National Debt. The 2009 budget deficit was forecast to be $482 billion, moving from black ink at the end of Clinton’s term, into red ink to the order of US$750 billion! That is without adding all the billions being thrown at the Wall Street Debacle. Plus the Iraq Fiasco, US$3 trillion and counting, which is only the second conflict to be fought on credit. The other being the War of Independence.
    This will all push the National Debt way past the US$9.7 trillion forecast for 2009.

  • Augustus

    There are reports that Obama is already appointing some of his White House staff. Coming on top of earlier reports of him preparing his victory speech, isn’t that like selling the skin before the bear’s even been shot?

  • Long Memory

    Never rule out a Republican trick to fix the election. State Governor Jeb Bush fixed Florida in 2000 and when that didn’t quite swing the national poll the Republicans just went ahead and fixed the result on the casting vote of a Supreme Court toady.

    Yet I still (kind of) hope McCain/Palin win. That way the people responsible will have to clear up the sickening financial, economic and moral mess into which America has been dumped by three decades of Republican ascendancy.

    This greedy and sinister cabal (think Gingrich, Cheney, Rumsfeld and shudder) has plunged America into titanic foreign debt by throwing away its magnificent industrial heritage, thrown away its fiscal probity, thrown away its rule of law, thrown away its constitutional probity by stealing the 2000 election and thrown away the goodwill of the world after 9/11 with the nightmare they unleashed in Iraq.

    And made the rich richer and the poor (the decent hard-working ordinary folk of America) poorer.

  • kayvijkay

    The mainstream media of the world, even when endorsing Obama’s candidature. has been generally equivocal about his qualification for the top job. One wonders why? Any guess, anyone?

  • Gil

    It is amazing to see people who only see the candidates through the prism of TV or You Tube, commenting on Obama’s temperament.

    We simply don’t know enough about Obama to make judgments of his suitability to be president.

    He promised (still does?) ‘change’. What ‘change’? That he will be the first Afro-American (albeit black only on dad’s side) president?

    Obama has spent most of his short Senate career running for the presidency. What on earth has he done to deserve, to earn, the highest office in the land, leader of the world’s only superpower.

    Don’t Obama’s supporters stop to think that perhaps this is all too soon?

    As someone who has followed politics for 40 years, I believe that the questions marks over Obama are too great to ignore.

    Waht also amazes me is the bias shown towards Mccain in the media. How can any reasonable person, looking at the coverage of the Hillary-Obama race and now this one, say that the coverage was fair?


  • Paul

    I’m no fan of Obama but the thought of Palin anywhere near The White House would have me voting for him.
    It is precisely his support for abortion rights and gun control that attract me; I’m not at all keen on his economic policies.
    Palin’s brat-breeding, no abortion under any circumstances, persona makes a vote for McCain an impossible choice for me.

  • Gil

    Whoops…my previous comment should have read ‘bias against McCain'(as if anyone really cares…)

    Paul:’Palin’s brat-breeding’.

    What an arrogant, dishonest, low comment. Typical of many Democrats. No wonder why Reagan beat Jimmy Carter and no wonder McCain will beat Obama.

    So because Palin breeds ‘brats’ you’re willing to see the economy go under.

    Your post MUST be satirical.

  • Water

    Satire and the Speccie (could it be?).

  • Linda US

    I agree, Obama is a snake oil salesman been saying that for months. Also a black racist. Our media is biased, people are too busy to research thoroughly, there is voter fraud and basically Obama is buying the election with the backing of mysterious supporters. McCain 08′

  • Cdn

    Obama speaks highly of community organizers and has invited them to the White House, should he become President. I hope not this kind of community organizers, as described by Dohrn & Ayers, in Osawatomie, and sampled here: There are serious antiracist organizers building a revolutionary base in working class communities — in neighborhoods, shops, mills, mines, social institutions. There are those who are working among women, GI’s, vets, prisoners, among youth, students and the unemployed in every part of the country. There are some who have been at it for years and some who have just begun. Thousands more are needed; and each particular piece of work will have to be linked up into a whole. We need to out-organize the sophisticated and well-financed forces of George Meany, Louise Day Hicks, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace and Albert Shanker. Organizers need to crush this reactionary leadership with a revolutionized torrent of people. But revolutionaries expect adversity, expect to be fought every inch of the way by an entrenched ruling class, expect to confront danger and demoralization and overcome it, with creativity and audacity.

    Theory and ideology are important tools, and we should make study of Marxism-Leninism an important part of our work.

    Is there a fifth column at work within the USA?

  • Janet mccarthy

    Yawn i wish you would dig a MCCAIN in the same way. McCain seems to be the media darling everyone has forgot his past and his dodgy dealings not to mention his temper and this is what people want leading the free world. Your artical is a complete waste of time i used to enjoy the spectator but now Christopher Caldwell has demoted it to a right wing magazine only

  • Water

    I’ll agree as far as thoughts regarding snake oil are concerned. Though if I am entirely honest, it’s not his thoughts that bother me as much as (though they do). The hapless regard that the general public (over in America) are giving to Obama (though as we have seen with the plumber incident not all are ignorant).

    None the less, the congruity of idiocy that has been condoned by the general public beggars’ belief. Though a lot of us are at ease with the facts, in Europe, from what media coverage (via what television broadcasts and web data lead me to conclude e.g. the plumber par exempla as ironically entertaining as the scenario maybe be).

    Thus it is safe, with my aforementioned technological premise under-consideration, that in coming to the conundrum that general levels of ignorance over in America are not equal par (for it exceeds) the general level of conscious thought given by the Europeans. For the thoughts put out by the Democrats are advocated in such shallow rhetorical forms (both obvious and inadvertent) that ever desensitised iconoclastic U.S. electorate eat up. Whilst equally holding an unrivalled degree of contempt as far as opinion polls are concerned. All in all the general levels of spin have been phenomenal.

    As such I wish the Americans much success as a Republican sympathiser. And wish that they (the U.S. public) make the most enlightened decision. For after all this is a role that should not be taken (and symbiotically given) in a shallow superficial light.

  • young

    the author of this article claims obama doesn’t have a plan but fails to tell us what exactly is the “plan” that obama doesn’t have.

  • Water

    But that’s the whole point… in that his plan is so rhetorically residual that it requires no mention, ‘tis the specie after all for all accustomed bloggers (and I am not saying that you don’t know, I merely state the case). Hence the sympathies for McCain, the author should not need spell it out.

  • Familiar Clown

    “Satire and the Speccie…”

    Ooh! Water, you are awful…but I like you!

  • Sean O’Brien

    Your closing paragraph is the story. Obama’s election is less about change and a new future than about the old rule in politics; follow the money. The bottom line is the bottom line. Had McCain out-advertized = outspent to the extent that Obama did him in Colorado, Florida, Indiana and Pennsylvania etc, he would likely have been accused of “buying the election.’ Not Barack, though. “Aye, there’s the rub,” whence comes all that Democratic Party money? The issue; can conservatives raise three times as much money as Obama, four years hence?

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