WASHINGTON – Three months ago, Sen. John McCain made a calculated decision to begin painting a not-so-pretty picture of Sen. Barack Obama.
Although Sen. Hillary Clinton was – and still is – battling Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, McCain began preparing his case against the Illinois senator early on. McCain’s advisers, like other observers, had concluded that Obama was the likely nominee and wanted to begin shaping Obama’s image while the Democrat was still consumed with fighting Clinton.
Defining one’s opponent is a key task of any campaign, and simply put, McCain has had a long head start. As early as Feb. 12 – the day McCain and Obama each won primaries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. – McCain suggested Obama was guilty of hollow promises and a messianic self-image.
“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,” McCain said, alluding to Obama’s speaking skills and campaign theme. He added, “I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need.”
Unlike McCain, Obama has been fighting a two-front war, trying to beat back an onslaught from Clinton while taking opening shots at McCain. Recently, Obama has started focusing more squarely on the presumptive Republican nominee, attacking his positions on the war and the economy.
But because of the long, bruising Democratic campaign, McCain has gotten an early jump. Day by day, week by week, McCain has been portraying Obama as inexperienced, self-entitled and effete, a candidate coddled by a loving press corps and lacking the judgment necessary for the highest office in the land.
It’s a line of attack likely to last through the fall election.
“We’ll make the case that Barack Obama is a wonderful new voice selling old, discredited ideas, including the most massive tax increase since Walter Mondale ran for president,” said Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser. “It’s a combination of weakness, not being ready to be president and not being able to deliver on the things he says he will deliver on.”
It’s not clear how widely these criticisms have resonated, given the intense media focus up to now on the Democratic battle. The Obama campaign says that in any case they are unlikely to sway voters eager for change.
“Unlike John McCain, Barack Obama had the judgment to oppose this disastrous war from the beginning and the judgment to understand that for the sake of our security we now need to change course and bring it to a responsible conclusion,” said Hari Sevugan, an Obama spokesman.
But the McCain camp sees Obama’s relative lack of experience and accomplishment as a major vulnerability, especially compared to a longtime senator and war hero. In a speech on his judicial philosophy last week, McCain went after Obama for being more of a talker than a doer, as well as for what he considers his limited record of bipartisan accomplishment.
“Senator Obama in particular likes to talk up his background as a lecturer on law, and also as someone who can work across the aisle to get things done. But when Judge Roberts was nominated, it seemed to bring out more the lecturer in Senator Obama than it did the guy who can get things done,” said McCain, accusing Obama of casting a “partisan” vote against John Roberts to be chief justice of the Supreme Court.
McCain is particularly critical of Obama for his plan to quickly withdraw troops from Iraq and his willingness to meet with the heads of rogue nations. Those positions, McCain frequently suggests, are grounded in a lack of experience, as well as poor judgment.
On “Morning Joe” on MSNBC in April, McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot, responded with derision to Obama’s call for leaving a limited strike force in Iraq. “I think somebody ought to ask what in the world he’s talking about, especially since he has no experience or background at all in national security affairs,” McCain told host Joe Scarborough.
But McCain faces hurdles in getting through to the public with this message. The Iraq war is deeply unpopular, which matches Obama’s position better than McCain’s. Republicans remain unpopular. Most voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, that economic conditions will get worse and that gas prices are likely to stay high, said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.
“Being the experienced person from Washington is not what voters are looking for right now,” Greenberg said. “People actually want something very different. They want Washington to be different.”