Can Barack Obama throw a punch? If there is an upside to the shots Obama has taken from his former pastor, it's the opportunity created for him to show his mettle. The superdelegates who hold the balance of power appreciate the nobility of his high-minded rhetoric, but they're also taking his measure as a future commander in chief (and as a ticket-topper for the party). For them, and for the voters, it was a relief to see the always cool Obama reach his threshold and get angry, finally, at a man who once meant so much to him.
The personal piece has been elusive for him. As good as his campaign is, it has not been easy for Illinois's junior senator to dig a little deeper into his psyche and share himself with voters. Maybe he figures he's already done that with the coming-of-age memoir he published at age 33. But if he's to survive the assault on his character from Reverend Wright and assorted others—including, of course, Hillary Clinton—he needs to be more forthcoming. It's not that voters think he's a secret radical; they're just not sure he has what it takes to run the country. If he can't stand up to a minister who has run off the rails, how would he stand up to Vladimir Putin?
Presidential elections do not turn on the issues—a sad reality Democrats have yet to fully absorb. There's a reason Hillary connected with voters when she got teary in New Hampshire and why her message is gaining traction now, while she's fighting so hard. People want to see passion, toughness, and determination in a president. Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Political Brain," a study of how emotions affect the way we vote, says Obama's press conference denouncing Wright was "the first time we've seen him really throw a punch." The opposition has thrown a lot at him: the "3 a.m." ad questioning his fitness to be commander in chief; the ad in Pennsylvania showing an image of Osama bin Laden, meant to reinforce fears about Obama's leadership; and the relentless, effective attacks about his calling economically distressed voters "bitter." But despite all that "he was never willing to throw a knockout punch back," says Westen. "And it wouldn't have been hard for him, with Hillary making up out of whole cloth a story of sniper fire that didn't happen."
Voters respect his restraint, but they also worry about it, says Westen. That's why Obama's demeanor in his press conference, a mix of anger and sadness, was as important as his words. The superdelegates are looking for reassurance that he can respond in a decisive way to end the Wright controversy and get back to his message. They're not really uncommitted—they're mostly for Obama—but they're wary of signing on to a campaign that might yet come apart. "He had the greatest fastball anybody had seen, and now it's 'Hey man, can you throw a change-up?' He needs another pitch in his repertoire," says James Carville, a top pitchman for the Clintons. The race is tightening. Obama holds a narrow lead in North Carolina, and Indiana is too close to call. Hillary's people cite her strength with white voters without a college education. Her 10-point lead over Obama in this demographic has swelled to 40 points in the latest Pew Research survey. "The onus is on her," says Carville. "She's got to do better than tie. If she wins Indiana and North Carolina, she's the nominee. She's got to shock the system, and she may be shocking it."
Reminded that Obama continues to narrow the lead that Hillary once enjoyed among superdelegates, Carville quips, "A superdelegate commitment and four bucks will get you a cup of coffee at the Ritz-Carlton." Perhaps he had in mind Joe Andrew, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, appointed by Bill Clinton, who endorsed Hillary on the day she announced for president, and Thursday switched his endorsement to Obama, saying he thinks it's time for the party to come together. Carville takes the view that the longer Obama is out there under scrutiny, the more the voters see his vulnerabilities. "Everything that's happened to him is not because of her. She hasn't laid much of a glove on him other than just being there," Carville says.
Obama didn't have much choice in deciding to take on Wright. It was a fight he did all he could to avoid, acting only when it threatened to destroy his candidacy. "The Republicans will eat him alive" is what the Clinton campaign is telling the superdelegates. Hillary is the tougher of the two, the candidate you want on your side in a knife fight, a gender reversal that prompts Carville to indulge in some ribald humor: "If she gave him one of her cojones, they'd both have two."