There is an image from the 1988 presidential campaign that I can no longer get out of my mind. It is a Doonesbury cartoon. In this four-frame strip there is no dialogue and no action. Each frame simply shows the unmoving figure of Michael Dukakis covered in mud. It pains me greatly that this awful image is how I am now beginning to view the Obama campaign.
The results of the recent Pennsylvania primary have been hotly debated in the circles in which I travel. Some have taken the position that Obama does not have a serious problem with white voters in general, or the white working class in particular; that his campaign just needs to keep on doing what he has been doing. He has an insurmountable delegate lead. He has prevailed in overwhelmingly white states like Iowa and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton needed a huge double-digit victory to have any hope of closing Obama's pledged delegate lead. And he did manage to substantially narrow her margin of victory to less than 10 percent, despite his initial huge disadvantage in the Pennsylvania polls and her endorsement by the sitting governor.
All of these claims are credible. But to my mind they are unpersuasive.
They are unpersuasive because of several apparent recurrent weaknesses in the Obama campaign: weaknesses that must be urgently addressed if he is to prevail.
First, there are serious deficiencies in the Obama communications team. I have no idea who is to blame. But it is clear that the Clinton camp is much more successful at setting the media agenda. They get the media to cover the issues that matter to them and in the way they want them to do it. This pattern began in the week or so prior to the Texas and Ohio primaries when Obama spent days battling off Rezko and trade pact allegations. The result is that he was on the defensive in the days before the primary, not setting the tone.
This pattern occurred again, in spectacular fashion, in Pennsylvania. In the days immediately prior to the vote, when a large number of undecided voters were making up their minds, Obama was again fending off concerns about Rev. Wright, his own ill-considered "bitter" remarks, flag lapel pins, and then Bill Ayers. Rather than setting the agenda, or even getting credit for how poised and Presidential he seemed in that Gibson-Stephanopoulos tag-team, take-down debate on ABC, he appeared to be on the ropes and vulnerable.
Now, barely a week before the critical North Carolina and Indiana primaries, Obama is, again, primarily on the defensive. Again, the agenda is set largely by his critics and a media eager for a simplistic, sensational story. The aggrieved Rev. Wright has proved all too obliging to Obama's opponents and to the media need for a simple script with a bad guy in it.
Weakness number two is the candidate himself, and this time the problem reminds me more of John Kerry than Mike Dukakis. Obama seems to have difficulty sticking to a "script." Why does this matter? It goes back to how most journalists do their work. Candidates in this mass-mediated age who do not provide the press with clear storylines on who they are and what they are about make a reporter's job much more difficult.
I recall vividly the final two weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign. George W. Bush seemed to begin his regular "mis-underestimated" day by stating flatly the campaign theme for day. From then on he repeated that message like a robot. The morning radio and tv programs knew exactly what to report. By evening there was a nice photo op to go with the tagline for the day on the nightly news programs.
John Kerry, in contrast, seemed to extemporize anew each day (and possibly at each stop during a day). If there was a steady message from the Kerry campaign to cover, the press could not possibly have found it. I couldn't.
Obama is (mercifully) not this bad. Indeed, he is charismatic, articulate to a fault, and brilliant. However, the initial inability to come up with a clean, simple account of the "bitter" remarks and to then stick to it without variation became a problem. It contributed to keeping alive a problem that should have been quickly squelched. Intelligence is not enough. You have to make sure the media receives and reports the message.
Critically, at this juncture, Obama should never again be engaged in a debate with Rev. Wright. Wright diminishes himself further with every public appearance he makes. Obama's outraged response to Wright's comments this week at the National Press Club should be his final words on the matter. Wright will soon enough be a footnote in history texts. No serious contender for President of the United States should be spending any more time on him.
Weaknesses number three is that Obama needs to increase his credibility with working class whites. No one was more "to the manor born" than George Herbert Walker Bush. But, if "41," Daddy Bush, can don lumberjack's clothes and eat a bag of pork rinds with the 'fellas' in 1988, then the Senator from Illinois needs to start hanging out tie-less at some corn festivals in 2008, too.
Indeed, this is the moment to announce a major economic policy initiative or agenda aimed at addressing the real problems faced by working people, regardless of race, gender or religion. It is time to re-claim the agenda and to the set the frame for what the media reports. This time Clinton is right: another smooth speech from the early phase of the campaign is not enough.
Part of the reason the media runs with distractions like Rev. Wright in a long campaign is precisely because Obama has not silenced the worry that a significant fraction of white Democratic voters will not stand with him if even the flimsiest of "race cards" is played against him. A steady, direct, substantive, policy-oriented appeal to average working men and women is now a necessity for the Obama campaign.
The mantra of change is not enough for him to claim the allegiance of the superdelegates after June 3rd. It is time to explicitly and dramatically go after white working class voters, to exhibit a whole new level of campaign discipline regarding message (especially in response to negative attacks), and, perhaps, to remove whichever members of the current communications team seem unable to effectively help the media do their job. I for one am ready to see this campaign turn the page and regain the momentum.
Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.