The way things are going, you have to ask yourself if Barack Obama really wants to be President. Coming off a triumphant and nearly flawless convention, three to six points ahead in the opinion polls, facing an apparently weak opponent who wasn't particularly loved even by his own party, Obama was blindsided when McCain, who turned out to be far less moribund or dull-witted than he'd appeared, completely outmaneuvered him with his wily pick of the Alaskan pit bull for VP.
Since then the tables have turned completely, and it's Obama who looks like he's sleepwalking into oblivion. Oh sure, he's still putting forth solid, sensible proposals couched in crystal-clear and at times downright elegant language, but suddenly nobody is listening. They're too busy watching Obama get pummeled and pushed and bullied every which way from Sunday by a doddering old wreck and his strident female sidekick.
When it comes to making a scripted presentation to a stadium or lecture hall full of adoring followers, there's no one in the business who comes close to Obama (though Palin shows signs of giving him a run for his money). But in the rough and tumble cut and thrust of everyday politicking, Obama is like a deer caught in the headlights, the skinny kid on the playground who bullies naturally gravitate to, and who tries, usually with humiliating results, to reason his his way out of his predicament.
Americans like a little testosterone in their Presidents, and Obama is showing none. Joe Sixpack can be forgiven for asking how a President Obama would stand up to the Russians or Islamic terrorism if he turns to jelly in the face of insults from an inarticulate old man and a glib but ultimately silly woman. Even I, though I still want Obama to win, can't help wondering if he's up to the job.
This whole ridiculous lipstick-on-a-pig business (a phrase, by the way, that McCain used himself last year, and that Vice-President Cheney used at least three times during the 2004 campaign), for example: it's the perfect opportunity for Obama to stand up tall, and with an appropriate measure of disgust, say to the American people, "They (McCain and Palin) must think you're really stupid." He used that phrase once in reference to McCain's newfound strategy of selling himself as an agent of change, but he should make it his mantra, repeating it every time some Republican operative or talk show host tries to hijack the discussion into the realm of preposterous namecalling and accusations, every time McCain or his minions trot out yet another lie about taxes or national defense or "change."
Instead he staggers from one onslaught to the next, barely able to mount a credible defense, let alone the sort of scorched-earth offense he needs to lay on the bald-faced liars running the Republican campaign. Why isn't he? Either he's being very badly advised or he simply lacks the character.
Obviously I'm hoping for the former but fearing the latter. Could it be that Obama so resolutely plays Mr. Nicey-Nice-Above-The-Fray because he's wary of coming across to his white supporters as an Angry Black Man? Possibly, but if so he's already taken it way too far. Or maybe his mother taught him never to pick on girls, which might explain why he circles warily but speechlessly around The Palin while she's busily running off with his female voters. Or - and here's a touchy subject - could it be his experience with affirmative action, and its implicit lesson that adequate is a reasonable substitute for excellent?
Obama has refused to discuss whether he was a beneficiary of affirmative action, but given the period when he went to college and the college he attended (Harvard has been especially assiduous in its pursuit of minority students, perhaps in hopes of defusing its longstanding reputation as a bastion of white male elitism) make it fairly likely. The bitter irony is that, as demonstrated daily by his obvious erudition, he had no need of affirmative action programs, but that doesn't mean he couldn't have been part of one, nor that he didn't absorb one of affirmative action's most pernicious lessons: that second or third best is more than good enough when combined with the "right" skin color.
I'd hate for any of this to be true, and love for Obama to prove me wrong by coming out kicking and screaming and cussing and punching on tomorrow morning's news. But I hope for the best while fearing the worst: that once again the Democrats will hand the country over to the radical right not through a paucity of ideas but from a failure of nerve. If nothing else - if Obama just can't bring himself to say something mean about his opponents - get Hillary Clinton on the case. Promise her Secretary of State or whatever else her little heart desires, but turn her loose on McCain and Palin and I guarantee you'll see some results. You might also get people wondering, "Tell me again why we nominated him instead of her," but that's the chance the Democrats have got to take. Unless of course they - and you - are quite happy with the way things are.