Seldom has the basic structure of an election tilted so strongly in the direction of the Democratic Party. In these circumstances especially, losing the presidential contest would be devastating for the party and would guarantee the continuation of divided government, at great cost to the country. In order to maximize his chances of winning, here are some of the steps Barack Obama needs to take.

  1. Introduce himself to the American people. Despite the protracted nominating contest, most Americans know almost nothing about him, other than his hopefulness and his unfortunate relationship with Jeremiah Wright. His early general election advertisements and speeches should lay out his biography, emphasizing that his family background was anything but privileged.
  1. Establish clear priorities. In his 2000 stump speech, George W. Bush relentlessly repeated the five main things he intended to accomplish as president. It wasn't elegant, but it conveyed a sense of direction and gave listeners something concrete to take away with them. The downside of inspiration is that when the immediate sensation fades, most listeners won't remember what they've heard.
  1. Focus more specifically on the economy. I would bet that if you asked 100 Americans today what Obama would do to improve their economic circumstances and prospects, at most a handful would be able to provide a single specific. Filling in the blanks is a necessary condition for maintaining control of the economic issue, which will be a key to victory, especially among the less-educated, lower-income voters who were unmoved by the generic promise of "change" during the primaries.
  1. Cross the threshold of credibility as commander-in-chief. Obama should emphasize that despite his determination to terminate our combat presence in Iraq, he understands that our ground forces are badly battered and dangerously overstretched. Because they will have to be rebuilt and expanded, there will be no "peace dividend." In addition, to maximize the continuity of national security despite the change of administrations, he should announce his willingness to retain both the current CIA director and the director of national intelligence for the first two years of his presidency.
  1. Reach out to Catholics. The most faithful Democratic group a half-century ago, Catholics are now the key swing religious group in the electorate. During the nominating contest, Obama tended to do worse among white Catholics than among white Protestants. If this trend continues, it could mean trouble in the fall, especially in the Midwest, where Catholics are disproportionately represented in most swing states. To turn this around, Obama should:
    • visit the Pope before the convention;
    • give Senator Bob Casey, Jr., a primetime speaking role at the convention, rectifying the exclusion of his father from the 1992 convention, a slight many Catholics still remember and resent;
    • deliver a high-profile speech at Notre Dame on themes such as social justice and community, as Bill Clinton did in 1992; and
    • create networks of local Catholic organizers in states such as Ohio, a strategy the Bush campaign employed to decisive effect in 2004.
  1. Emphasize moderation and open-mindedness on social issues. Relatively few Americans remember the path-breaking speech on religion in public life that Obama delivered two years ago. He should bring it out of mothballs, deliver it in a high-profile setting, and then incorporate its essential points in his stump speech. In addition, he should restore the so-called conscience clause on abortion that appeared in the 1996 and 2000 Democratic platforms but was removed in 2004. It read: "The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party."
  1. Make the electorate understand that on the issues that they care about the most, John McCain is no moderate. His prescription for the economy: even larger tax cuts. For health insurance: a privatization scheme that wouldn't even assure access to the many millions of Americans with preexisting conditions. And for Iraq: war without end. If Obama can persuade moderate and independent voters that McCain is more conservative than Bush on the issues that matter most, he will almost certainly win the election.