Barack Obama got the polling bump he expected when he clinched the Democratic nomination, but the bump only bumped him to the edge of a shallow but inconvenient ditch.
A new poll by the Zogby organization for Reuters finds that John McCain, whose campaign is having trouble getting on track, has nevertheless pulled within five points of Sen. Obama. This is a gain of three points over the past month. He leads John McCain 47 to 42 percent, close to the margin of error, which means the two presumptive nominees have moved into a tie, more or less.
Tightening poll numbers, subject to fluctuations every time the wind blows, the mouse squeaks and the dog barks, don't mean much until after Labor Day. But the damage done to Mr. Obama's saintly image by events he seems unable to control is something real to worry about. Worse, he's having his first lovers' quarrel with his camp followers of press and tube.
Reporters were told this week to expect less access to the candidate; photographers especially are poison. The camp followers are still miffed because the Obama campaign dispatched his plane with reporters aboard back to Washington while he, without telling them, slipped away to stay in Chicago to chat up Hillary Clinton. Several bureau chiefs and the Associated Press accused him of deliberate deception.
An incident in Detroit, where Obama aides asked a young woman in a Muslim head scarf to step out of a photograph to avoid the appearance of any association however remote with Muslims, threatens to mark the end of the affair between the candidate and the press. Or at least the late recognition that the object of affection all sublime snores, burps and blows his nose just like everybody else. The Obama campaign was founded on the proposition that the senator is without a marketer's "image." Now we see that Barack Obama works to project a marketing image just like all the other pols. It's enough to break a lover's heart.
The Obama campaign tried to fix the Detroit damage with grovels, apologies and promises. "It doesn't reflect the orientation of the campaign," a spokeswoman told reporters. "I do not believe that mistake will be made again." The word apparently never made it downstream. Obama aides subsequently barred cameras at a rally of black preachers and community leaders, apparently in fear that he might be surrounded by too many black and brown faces. Earlier his campaign declined to identify several religious figures with whom he met in Chicago, and the preachers were directed to leave by a side door to avoid reporters and photographers.
Photographers were definitely not kept out - they were urged in - when Mr. Obama met with several retired military officers to suggest that he is, too, tough enough to be the commander in chief. He wore his flag pin on his lapel, and flags fluttered everywhere. There might even have been a cross somewhere in the folds of the bunting. The Democrats have clearly rediscovered God, generals and the flag. A claque of adoring ladies on the television program "The View" continued the reconstruction of Michelle Obama, to display her as patriotic not proud, soft not squishy, warm not hot. "Mrs. Obama," wrote an admiring columnist for the New York Times, "went on [television] ... to combat the notion that she is a little too authentic to be the first lady, while Mrs. McCain did it to undercut the image that she is too fake."
Managing an image is hardly new to the Obama campaign. That's what modern presidential politics is all about, and the Obama campaign usually does it very, very well. When his campaign was struggling with Hillary Clinton in North Carolina, the campaign worked hard to see that white women, waving tiny American flags, always formed a reassuring backdrop for the photographers.
The McCain campaign does this, too, just not as well. Advance men, hired to make the fakery look authentic, carefully choose the faces that surround the candidate. But Barack Obama was first sold as a politician who was above stooping to the level of everyone else. He has to be careful now not to be seen exploiting "identity politics," the fashionable euphemism for "racial politics." When the going gets tough, and the tough get going, it won't be easy.