Political theatre at its best in America’s election of a lifetime

ALTHOUGH media coverage of Barack Obama’s recent trips abroad was mostly positive, the sense that he was acting as president-elect grated with some journalists, particularly when they were not granted any access to him during the visits to Afghanistan and Iraq.

They had to rely on camera footage shot by the US military. The message as far as journalists were concerned was clear — Obama’s team would remain in total control of the images that went back to the US. There were also some tetchy encounters on the flight from Amman to Israel, when Obama’s team offered journalists an off-the-record account of the meeting between Obama and King Abdullah of Jordan.

The journalists insisted it be on the record, arguing it was highly presumptuous of Obama to act like he is already in the White House and insist on what is traditionally a prerogative of the president in his dealing with the media.

Notwithstanding, Obama’s team will be delighted with the crowds that greeted him in Berlin and his talks with the European heavyweights (that’s if the beleaguered Gordon Brown still qualifies for that title).

But there were risks inherent in the foreign-trip strategy, which John McCain’s spokesman Tucker Bounds summed up succinctly, by suggesting the adulation witnessed in Berlin smacked of “a premature victory lap”, and that, combined with the presumptuousness that irritated the journalists, could spell danger for Obama.

Maybe Obama’s trip will have been comforting for those Americans who worry about the extent of anti-American feeling in Europe as a result of the dislike of Bush and his policies, but Obama already has those votes in the bag.

There are plenty more Americans who could not care less what Berlin thinks, or where it is, which is why Obama was quick to get back on message earlier this week in the aftermath of the trip.

“People back home are worried about gas prices, they’re worried about jobs,” he said.

That is far more important than the fact that he was treated on his trip as though he has already won the race (apparently in Germany one official accidentally called him “Mr President”).

The opinion polls suggest a narrow gap between the two candidates and McCain will claim that Obama’s call for 7,000 more troops to be sent to Afghanistan is just an endorsement of McCain’s own call for a heightened military presence in that region.

At home, Obama’s predictable move to the centre on policy issues in the aftermath of his securing of the nomination prompted the criticism of Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, who lamented how dull and defensive Obama’s campaign became, once it drifted into “focus-group-tested calculation”.

Obama refined his position on Iraq and capital punishment and supported a pro-NRA judgment on gun control. His perceived hectoring of black men — or “talking down” to them, as Jesse Jackson put it (before expressing the wish to “cut his nuts off”) has highlighted the difficult balancing act he faces.

Liberals are irritated about his new pragmatic conservativeness, but the alternative remains, as they would see it, a continuation of Bush’s policies. There were those in 2004, so fearful about a second Bush term, that they began to refer to that election as “the most important of my lifetime”. Now it is this one.

But while it may be true that Obama is the only man who can change the United States’ image overnight, that does not mean that he has not got a battle on his hands to convince the Americans he is ready for the job. He also has to be careful not to give those who question his patriotism an inch. In autumn last year when he stopped wearing his American flag pin, which had become an unofficial emblem of the “War on Terror” in Bush’s America, the sniping started.

Back then, Obama was able to be honest and frank in responding to the question as to why he had stopped wearing the pin; it became “a substitute, I think, for true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to national security. I’ve decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead I’m gonna try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism”.

In a country where the flag is revered and constantly displayed, that was a brave stance, but the days of such frankness are over. Obama’s pin was very visible during his trip to Europe last week.

There is likely to be an almost obsessive preoccupation on the part of his handlers over the next few months with proving that Obama is not volatile or divisive, but also that he is intellectually tough.

His opponent has a strong appeal for independents, and is not widely liked within his own party.

A military hawk who wants to “follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell” and who promises to appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, he also co-sponsored an immigration bill with Ted Kennedy, the icon of Democratic liberalism, designed to give the US’s 12 million illegal citizens a route to citizenship. Hostile to the notion of using US power for humanitarian reasons and wanting to see North Korea threatened with “extinction”, McCain is also perceived as a straight talker with character who tells people what he thinks they need — not what they want to hear — and does not dodge questions.

Nor should it be forgotten that McCain would much prefer to be running against Clinton than Obama, and his admission last year that “economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should” may well come back to haunt him.

He has had to attempt to make peace with the right wing of his own party. He will probably continue to dismiss Obama’s rhetoric. “To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude,” he said.

How much weight these words carry will depend on McCain’s own actions, and temper, over the next few months, what sort of mood the Americans are in, and how tightly disciplined and controlled the Obama campaign is in the face of the mud the Republicans will sling with increasing rapidity.

Obama has called McCain “a genuine war hero” but insists, “he’s on the wrong side of history”. I suspect he is correct in that assessment, but with more than three months before polling day, any amount of drama could unfold in either camp and the amount of money raised by both will also be crucial.

The potential first wives will also be scrutinised to an alarming degree — do Americans want their first lady rich and without strong opinions?

Do they fear the feisty toughness of Michelle Obama who does not always peddle the optimism her husband trades on?

And will she be able to tolerate the blatant sexism behind the cookie recipe questions?

It promises to be an intriguing election and I’m off to the US to have a look at how it all unfolds.

Goodbye for now.

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