Barack Obama quickly offered a distinction when asked whether his controversial ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright could derail his candidacy the way George McGovern and Michael Dukakis plummeted from the national spotlight.
Obama acknowledged the former Democratic presidential nominees as “excellent men” when he responded to the question after he spoke to Jewish community leaders in Philadelphia in April. But then he noted: “I’m a pretty darn good politician.” And he’s right.
Good politicians can detect when their messages resonate with voters and when adjustments are in order.
The Illinois senator’s campaign has revised its longtime slogan of “Change We Can Believe In” to “Change We Need.” Such subtle shifts are crafted deliberately, often suggesting a new strategy or mind-set. Why else would you see this replacement festooned on every campaign sign, repeated throughout Obama’s Web site and echoed in his stump speeches?
“Change We Need” evokes a sense of immediacy. It may even suggest a feeling of desperation from the Obama camp, sensing a discernible shift in support for his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain. Obama is in no immediate danger of squandering his historic ascent to the presidency. But campaigns are notorious for favoring desperate acts, especially when the situation calls for steadiness.
According to Obama staffers, the new slogan offers a distinction between the change that McCain promises for Washington and the real change we allegedly need. Perhaps the Obama camp felt that McCain’s recent use of “change” was below the belt, or at least warranted some royalties on its self-proclaimed copyright.
It’s understandable why Obama has been defensive and rickety in recent weeks. The media frenzy on McCain running mate Sarah Palin, an energized conservative base, McCain’s surge in the polls and, well, the fact that no Republican should even be competitive in this election. How can a man who has been deified throughout much of this campaign potentially find himself an afterthought in November?
The more revealing harbinger of Change 2.0 is that Obama no longer controls his own fate. This election is quickly becoming a referendum on the bolder McCain-Palin ticket. Perhaps the American electorate has grown weary of Obama-mania, or perhaps voters are tired of waiting for tangibles from Obama’s candidacy. Regardless, Obama knows there’s a problem.
According to Rasmussen’s daily tracking polls, more than 70 percent of voters responded consistently during the past 10 months that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Considering that Obama and McCain have virtually identical favorable ratings, it would seem reasonable to conclude that Obama has the edge in this race.
However, Obama’s fundamental struggle is establishing greater trust with voters on the two paramount issues of this campaign. Rasmussen’s latest poll on voter trust indicates that McCain has a 4-point edge on the economy and a 15-point lead on national security. Even more distressing for Obama, only 44 percent of voters (even fewer among voters over 40) believe that he is prepared to be president, compared with 63 percent for McCain.
So why is Obama wisely shifting his core message from “Change We Can Believe In” to “Change We Need?” Because voters are less likely to believe in him than they are to believe in a changing of the guard. If Obama can convince voters that this election is about symbolically ousting George W. Bush, then he still may prevail.
Most voters who consider the country on the wrong track do not blame McCain for the failures of the Bush administration, even if Obama does. The “McSame” signs have failed to gain any traction, placing the onus back on Obama to sell his vision and credentials to the American people.
Obama’s charisma alone makes him worthy of distinction from the likes of McGovern and Dukakis. But if his fate becomes the same, how can he avoid drawing such comparisons? As the Obama camp would say, “That’s not change, that’s more of the same.”
Michael J. Wissot, a managing general partner at SymAction Communications and an adjunct professor of communication at Pepperdine University, worked for Sen. John McCain in Washington and in Phoenix, Ariz.
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