Over the last month Barack Obama has opened a considerable lead over John McCain in the polls, and if the trend continues he will be elected on November 4th. Simply stated, the trend is this: as problems in America have worsened, Obama's chances of becoming the next American president have strengthened.
Facing what has been described by Obama as the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, two unpopular and unwieldy foreign wars, a looming energy crisis, and a tarnished global reputation, many Americans feel that at the core of these issues is a crisis of leadership.
Going the distance
The central theme for America's 2008 presidential election is change. Mr. Obama cottoned onto this message in the nascent stages of his campaign when, as a junior senator from Illinois, he decided to challenge a veteran field of Democrats, chiefly Hillary Clinton, the presumptive party favourite.
In response to criticism that he was unqualified for the job of president, Mr. Obama had the foresight to suggest that this weakness could be his greatest strength. He is a wildcard without any deep ties to the Washington establishment, he is the first African American with a serious shot at becoming chief executive, and he is young - in line to be the third youngest president. His campaign slogan, "change we can believe in," was designed to capture the hope of a nation fed up with eight years of George W. Bush, and voters wary of the impotence of lackluster Democrats. Now that American confidence is plunging to new lows, Obama has strengthened his message to "the change we need."
Though Obama won a rather narrow victory in his party's primary, his uphill battle against Clinton was arguably a more difficult challenge than the one he has faced against Senator McCain. Obama has campaigned in the media spotlight for well over a year-- dominating the news cycle. People are familiar with his face if not his policies. In speeches he promises a generational shift in line with changing attitudes, both American and global.
Obama's Republican opponent brands himself a "maverick"--unafraid to cross his own party and its unpopular sitting president. At 72, McCain would be the oldest president to assume office. His legacy as a dedicated public servant, a war hero, and a senior senator endear him to many Republicans, and yet his social values are more moderate than those of the conservative Republican base.
The change that McCain offers is different than Obama's wholesale agenda--instead, McCain positions himself as direct change to President Bush. McCain favors reforming the current systems by eliminating wasteful government spending, and economic stimulus based on tax relief of the trickle-down variety made popular in the Reagan era.
While McCain's message would likely play well to what Richard Nixon dubbed "the silent majority" in times of stability, certain of his stay-the-course positions have proven damaging. With regards the war in Iraq, he favors no set timetable for an exit. His continued fervent support of the occupation runs directly contrary to Obama, who voted against the invasion while in congress and now favors a quick withdrawal from Iraq.
McCain's most striking and controversial effort to endorse change was selecting Governor Sarah Palin as his running-mate. She has even less experience than Obama, and comes to the fore from an obscure political career. To stalwart Republican loyalists, she is the conservative candidate that McCain is not. To the nation she is change in elemental form. To McCain's opponents, she is a doubly-dangerous liability: on the campaign trail she polarizes independent voters; in the office she would be an unpredictable conservative, a heartbeat from the hot seat.
Winds of change
Above all else, the issue that American voters consistently identify as the single most important to them is the state of the economy. There is a steady correlation between economic indicators and the polls. From the bottom to the top, the state of the economy affects Americans--from first-time homeowners who face imminent foreclosure, to main street businesses who fear for their survival in a state of recession, to wealthy and retired individuals who see their investments going up in smoke.
Such a broad crisis plays to Obama's strengths--he is confident speaking about his economic policies and argues (whether true or not) that the present turmoil resulted from the Bush administration's mismanagement of Wall Street.
Both candidates' handling of the $700 billion emergency bailout plan will likely be remembered as the pivotal moment of this election contest. With the economy at its most desperate, McCain officially suspended his campaign to deal with the crisis in Washington. McCain sought to demonstrate his economic leadership; he actually missed out on the opportunity to deliver bold speeches and promote his own corrective policies--a mistake that Obama has been flaunting ever since. Obama repeatedly skewers a comment McCain made a week before the bailout, "the fundamentals of the economy are strong."
The economic crisis has swallowed many of the contentious issues that Obama has had to face. Questions about race, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and foreign policy have been relegated to the background. Some speculate that the only way Obama can lose this election is if these secondary factors drive voter turnout in unexpected ways. In the run-up to Tuesday the 4th, it is possible that an increasingly desperate McCain campaign will attempt to exploit one of these issues. American elections are known for radical changes of direction. With less than a week to go, Obama must press his advantage.