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The Weird Persistence of John McCain

Last week, for the first time in our history, we had an African American president. Barack Obama posed for pictures with Angela Merkel and toured the skies of Iraq with David Petraeus. Meanwhile, George W. Bush was nowhere to be seen, as if he had already handed over the keys to the White House.

Savor the moment. It might not last.

Despite the ecstatic throngs in Berlin and the impeccable Sderot photo-op, Obama's lead hasn't grown in the polls. In fact, as of this writing, it has actually diminished in some polls of Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota--and evaporated in Colorado. National polls show McCain hanging within a stunningly small margin. (According to's average of all polling, he leads by just 2.5 percent.) What makes this margin so stunning is that nothing has gone right for McCain this past month. Obama has owned the news cycle--a fact that has turned McCain and his advisers into contemptuous whiners, complaining about the media's infatuation with Obama and even belittling their own travelling press corps as the "junior varsity" squad.

But, in truth, McCain should be happy that Obama has so dominated the airwaves and front page for these past weeks. These days, McCain's every utterance about foreign policy seems to arrive packaged in an embarrassing slip (sorry, Senator, Pakistan doesn't border Iraq); his crowds are paltry, and his campaign's stage-managing of events (see the cheese-aisle press conference) is downright, well, JV.

Yet, somehow, despite all this, McCain remains in the game. This is not easy to explain--and it should cause a great deal of introspection at Obama headquarters. For all the many ways that the stars have aligned for Obama, he has yet to take full advantage of what historically has been a great opportunity. Of course, we speak of the economy. These are the type of painful times when voters invariably turn to Democrats. So why aren't they turning to Obama in greater numbers?

If you journey to Obama's website, you'll find a slew of terrific policy proposals to fix financial markets and salve the worst blows of the downturn. But if you watch his ads and listen to his speeches, you'll struggle to hear him articulate a consistent narrative for our economics woes. His campaign has been notably devoid of the populist criticism of Al Gore's 2000 campaign--which is a shame, because there are corporations and banks well deserving of opprobrium just now. And, more importantly, he hasn't found a clear, compelling way to explain the contours of this current crisis--how it reflects structural changes and manifests itself in peoples' lives--a prerequisite for building faith in his capacity to solve it. The model should be Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, which didn't just relentlessly harp on hard times--it had a clear theory for what caused them. In part, this is a consequence of the prolonged primary season: Obama should have been compiling his general election case many months ago, while he had to contend with Hillary Clinton. And, now, time is growing short. Just because every data point would suggest an Obama victory, doesn't mean that he won't blow it.

By The Editors