Friday, 29 August 2008

Obama can win, but he needs clarity on what he will do and how he will do it

Barack Obama's speech last night was every bit as impressive a performance as one would expect from someone of his oratorical skills. He rightly eschewed too much grand rhetoric for more down to earth detail, and was not afraid to start attacking John McCain, in that "respectful" way that Democrats do these days. One can hope that he will be more like John Kerry 2008 than John Kerry 2004 in that respect, not least when McCain has hired the entire Republican dirty tricks crew to do his 'straight talking' for him.

From Obama's point of view, this has been a good convention. There have been great performances by his wife, Michelle and the Clintons. Ted Kennedy's emotional appearance and Joe Biden's contribution will have helped galvanise Democrats, and may improve Obama's credibility with blue collar voters. But it is still not yet clear what Obama's strategy is to win over centre ground voters and moderate Republicans. In part, he needs to remind people of Bush's failures, and do so unapologetically. In part, he must hope that McCain's tetchiness gets the better of him, as it seems to have done with Time this week.

But in big part, this is also going to depend on persuading enough people that he is the right man for these times. He has made some silly gaffes, the biggest of which was the Berlin rally; despite his difficult upbringing, he has allowed himself to appear more elitist than seven-home owning John McCain. But his basic platform is stronger and (education excepted, where he is too beholden to vested interests despite some frankness on sacking poor teachers) a lot more consistent than his liberal critics contend. He needs now to find a few clear policy areas - Iraq aside -on which to define himself in ways that transcend the historical nature of his candidacy.

The polls may be close now, and are likely to be no less so after the Republican convention. If Obama gets it right, he can transcend the attacks and win in November. But his team need to be attuned to winning a national election not just carving up liberal caucus votes. He needs to be clear what his key pledges are and repeat them until people know what they are and how they will be delivered. He made a good start last night. But it is just a start.

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