Obama’s task: Define who he really is

Mark Shields's picture

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — As his delegate lead over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton expands with every news cycle, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama remains the overwhelming favorite to win the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. But Obama and his legions of zealous supporters would be well-advised to keep the champagne on ice and uncorked.

Why? Because he faces a far more formidable challenge than the long slog to the nomination. Independent voters do not know really know Obama, and often what they do know about him is either negative or inaccurate — or both. That was the unmistakable message from a focus group of 12 independent voters conducted here the night before Clinton won the West Virginia primary.

Asked what “one or two things you remember about the (entire) 2008 campaign so far, “ Bob James, 51, the general manager of a restaurant; Monique Tyler, 40, an insurance analyst; Melinda Denisenko, 39, a receptionist; Danny Tawney, 41, an operations manager; William Mawyer, 72, a retired insurance man; Nola Miller, 30, a University of Virginia employee; and adult literacy teacher Dorita Wood, 65, all gave an identical answer: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Obama’s now-former pastor, whose widely circulated sermons have been branded by critics as racially isolating and anti-American.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts these focus groups for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, concluded after listening to the two-hour session: “While Barack Obama’s supporters are shouting, ‘Yes, we can,’ there is another group of independent voters who have not been part of the (primary) process who are asking, ‘Who are you?’”

It is true that none of the Charlottesville dozen had voted in Virginia’s presidential primary, but in this respect, they are far more representative of the majority of, perhaps, 130 million voters who will choose the president in November’s general election. Up to now, Clinton and Obama, between them in all the hotly covered primaries, have accumulated only 32 million votes.

When asked by Hart what kind of boss Obama would be, 24-year-old student Josh Williams responded, “He’d be like passive-aggressive — he would not confront you, but he would report you or write you up.”

The most positive assessment came from 26-year-old Realtor and military veteran, Patrick Shemorry: “I think he would be very motivating over his section. ... I think that he would do well and keep the morale high.”

Even after the extensive discussion of the Church of Christ’s Wright and the front-runner’s relationship with him, seven of the participants, when asked, said they believed that Obama was a Muslim. More than a few in the Charlottesville group expressed their doubts that Obama — because of his Ivy League and “elitist” background — could understand or identify with the difficult economic realities they, themselves, confront. Melinda Denisenko said Obama must first prove that he does not hate America and reach out to the “non-arugula-eating crowd.”

Even with all the reservations, Obama and Republican John McCain still divide the room. These voters are overwhelmingly disgusted with the status quo and seek real change. McCain gets high marks for his military service, but for the Arizonan — and virtually all Republicans in 2008 — George W. Bush (“worthless,” “warmonger,” “scary”) is an 800-pound albatross.

Obviously, Obama cannot afford to wait until the Denver convention on Labor Day to introduce himself to the voters. There is both less information and more misinformation about him than about any presidential nominee in memory. His task is as urgent as it is clear: to assure and prove to voters that he is an American (there are doubts), that he loves and honors his country as much as they do, and that he and his family have shared many of their experiences and also share many of their values.

After an evening in Charlottesville, the conclusion is inescapable: Obama, today, is too Starbucks in a Dunkin’ Donut world.


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