It may not be what you think.
As it became clear that Hillary Clinton was gaining ground on Obama, especially in the last week, his usually flawless campaign made several blunders. Here, in order of importance, are ten reasons why Obama slipped.
1. NAFTA Flap
When Obama’s leading economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, met with a Canadian official and allegedly told him that Obama’s stated views on NAFTA during the campaign amounted to “political posturing,” this was a huge blunder. It undercut Obama’s attack on Clinton for NAFTA, where she was vulnerable, especially in Ohio. It raised serious issues about Obama’s credibility with the American public, which is just getting to know him. (Especially since Obama first denied that the comment was ever made.) And the NAFTA flap called into question his leadership abilities. As I’ve been saying for days, and as Paul Begala said Tuesday night on CNN, as soon as this story surfaced, Obama should have said that Goolsbee was not speaking for the campaign and should have given Goolsbee the heave-ho. Instead, the Goolsbee comment keeps stinging him.
It certainly didn’t help the Obama campaign that Tony Rezko’s trial began on Monday. The Rezko story has been lying around like a pulled hand grenade next to Obama’s headquarters for months now. Rezko is the Chicago wheeler-dealer who stands accused of money laundering and extorting bribes. He’s a longtime friend, funder, and supporter of Obama’s. And he helped Obama buy his house in Chicago. The Rezko ties, which the media finally began digging into, cast a shadow not only on Obama’s judgment but on his claim to want to clean up government.
3. A Blunder in the Last Debate
The Clinton camp wisely picked up on an Obama error in the Cleveland debate. Clinton had criticized him for never holding an oversight hearing on NATO’s role in Pakistan, even though he chairs a subcommittee on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that deals with NATO. All Obama could say to that was, “I became chairman of this committee at the beginning of this campaign, at the beginning of 2007. So it is true that we haven’t had oversight hearings on Afghanistan.” He all but admitted he shirked his duties to run for President! Clinton used this footage of Obama’s answer in an effective ad against him in the final week.
4. The Red Phone Ad
Negative advertising often works. That’s why we see it so much. And the “red phone” ad, I’m betting, did a lot to sow doubts in voters’ minds. Clinton almost split the male vote in Ohio and Texas, which is a huge switch for her. This ad helped position her as the “tough” candidate.
5. No Effective Counterpunch to Clinton’s “Fighter” Image
In the last debate, and in her speeches in the final week, Clinton stressed that she was a fighter not only for herself but for people in need. This resonated with the public, who admire her if for no other reason than she’s taken a lot of hits but keeps coming out of her corner with her head high. And this image contrasts well with Obama in two ways: First, it suggests that he’s all talk and no action. And second, it hints that his cool, low-key demeanor may not be steely enough either to take on McCain or to represent the country.
6. A Weak Economic Message
With the economy sliding deeper and deeper downward, Obama needs to strengthen his economic message. Throughout the campaign, Clinton has been beating him on the urgent issue of home foreclosures (calling for a moratorium, and a freeze on interest rates). He’s been slow to respond.
7. Too much time in Ohio
In the two weeks after the Wisconsin primary, Obama spent an inordinate amount of time in Ohio when all he needed to do, as Bill Clinton himself recognized, was to win either Texas or Ohio. As it became clearer that Ohio was going to be the tougher nut, Obama should have concentrated more of his time in Texas.
8. An Improvident Trip to Rhode Island
For some ridiculous reason, Obama went to Rhode Island on Saturday to campaign. By all accounts, he was always going to lose Rhode Island. And he needed that day—just three days before the primaries—to round up more Texas voters.
9. Failure to Bring Bill Richardson and John Edwards on Board
On Sunday on “Face the Nation,” Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico was one breath away from endorsing Barack Obama. Had Obama grabbed his endorsement (even in exchange for serious V.P. consideration, which Richardson was salivating about), Richardson could have done Obama a world of good with Latino voters in Texas. Similarly, Obama has been unable to seal the deal with John Edwards, who seemed such a natural fit with Obama during the debates. Obama needed to get Edwards’s endorsement for help among working class white voters. And it would have been of enormous help in Ohio.
10. SNL, Jon Stewart, Letterman
“Saturday Night Live” helped Clinton out two weeks in a row by showing the media as biased in favor of a hapless Obama. And Clinton made a conscious effort to inject some warmth into her personality by appearing on the show last Saturday, and by appearing on Jon Stewart Monday night. She also has done herself well by being cozy with David Letterman.