Barack Obama's Achilles' Heel, and how he hopes to fix it.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 30 2007 7:53 AM

Obama's Achilles' Heel

What's he ever done?

Sen. Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Sen. Barack Obama

This is the third in a series of articles about each presidential candidate's Achilles' heel. A companion video to this story appears on Slate V.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

If you haven't been able to keep up with the charges and countercharges in the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton fight over who would make a better commander in chief, don't worry, you can catch up. It'll be going on for the next six months. It started at the YouTube debate and in 48 hours exploded from a flap to a dust-up to an official grudge match. For the first time in the previously docile campaign, the candidates themselves traded snipes, and their aides swapped phony accusations on cable television.

The reason the fight flared so fast can be found in this result from Gallup poll: The key and overwhelming reason voters prefer Clinton to Obama is that they believe she has more experience. Obama wants to change that, so in the debate and in the days thereafter, he criticized Clinton's 2002 vote to authorize force in Iraq and asked why she didn't demand an exit strategy from the administration at the time. Clinton could have defended herself by pointing out she did call for an exit strategy, but she wants to keep that balance of experience leaning in her favor, so she chose instead to portray Obama as a callow youth. She claimed that he was "naive and irresponsible" for suggesting that he would negotiate with dictators in Iran and Cuba. Obama shot back the equivalent of "so's your mom," claiming it was her Iraq vote that was naive and irresponsible. Clinton had distorted Obama's debate answer to make it seem like he would thoughtlessly negotiate with dictators, so he distorted right back by questioning her motives and claiming again and again that she was like George Bush.

The root of the Obama/Clinton spat is the fundamental question about his campaign: Does he have enough experience to be president? By highlighting that he was right about Iraq and Clinton was wrong, Obama answers that question by reframing it: He may not have Clinton's résumé, but he has better judgment.

In the polls, Clinton does far better than Obama on questions of experience, leadership, and capacity to handle a crisis. She trounces him by more than 30 points among Democrats looking more for strength and experience in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. Worse for Obama, when voters are asked the question in the abstract whether he has enough experience for the job, only 30 percent of respondents said yes in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. On the same question, Clinton scores in the 70s.

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On the other hand, Obama receives his highest marks in polls from people who think he is new, fresh, and inspiring. If voters vote with their hearts, his experience problems might not matter that much. His candidacy also will test how voters assimilate their feelings about George Bush. Bush had no foreign-policy experience, and while he was surrounded by people who did have such experience, he has proven that there's no substitute for actual knowledge. On the other hand, voters are so depressed after the Bush presidency (70 percent of the public think the country is going in the wrong direction) they might rush to a candidate who seems able to electrify the country.

Democratic strategists debate whether experience is Obama's biggest problem or whether he faces a bigger challenge broadening his support among voters. Despite his success in recruiting record numbers of donors and turning out huge crowds, Obama's position in national and key state polls has leveled off. He does well with upper-income voters but has trouble connecting with those who make less than $35,000 and those who have graduated only from high school. He is often compared to other boutique candidates such as Eugene McCarthy and Bill Bradley, who were always in the murmur of elite drawing rooms but never caught on with the blue-collar base of the party.

For the moment, Obama is hampered by his own celebrity. To build a connection with voters in the early caucus and primary states, he needs to work smaller venues. Close interaction with voters allows them to take away a deeper impression and gives him feedback about what people are worried about and what they want to hear. He has an ear for this. Obama has compared talking to black church audiences to a jazz session where his rhetoric feeds off the room. But he can't jam if the room is too noisy, and for the moment, too many people are showing up at his rallies for him to create that intimate feel. "The campaign has tried to schedule smaller events to allow more personal contact with voters," says Polk County Democratic Chairman Tom Henderson, "but he almost always ends up drawing huge crowds."

Obama's other challenge, as one adviser put it, is the perception that he's "all sizzle and no steak." The huge crowds and stirring but vague reform rhetoric don't give voters anything they can take home in their pocket. This has lead to some high-profile failures—at a health-care forum in Nevada and with firefighters in Washington—in venues where audiences wanted to hear specifics about ideas that will change their lives. Obama's rhetoric makes this task more difficult. He presents himself as a paradigm-shifting candidate, which means people are expecting to be floored not just by his charisma but by his ideas.

These problems can be fixed. Interviews with Iowa and New Hampshire veterans suggest Obama's organization in the early states is far better than Howard Dean's was, and he has a better chance of capturing the African-American vote than the other brainy failures of the past. He can also improve his market share among Democrats who want change. In the recent Washington Post/ABC poll, party voters valued a candidate who brings a new direction and new ideas more than they valued strong leadership and experience—by 52 percent to 42 percent. Though Obama trails or is even with Clinton on the question of which candidate better represents change, his look and manner are so new it's not hard to imagine how he might convince voters.

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