Is this inspirational and brilliant young Obama ready to lead our country?
That is the question the American people will soon be asking that will decide this election. And notwithstanding the millions of enthusiastic Obama supporters, it is that choice that the American people want explained, defined and presented.
How Barack Obama and his team answer that question will determine whether on Nov. 5 they are making plans to move into the White House or writing a postmortem on yet another Democratic presidential campaign that underperformed.
I consider the Obama operation the most brilliant political campaign in my lifetime. Yet in the weeks to come questions about how Obama will implement his platform of change will receive greater scrutiny from the press and the electorate. By announcing some smart additions to his team now, he could go a long way toward heading off the GOP's general election attacks.
In the 1976 campaign that I planned and managed for Jimmy Carter, we spent four years developing a strategy and tactics to win the nomination—and not five minutes planning for the general election. With a 30-point lead over then-President Ford in June 1976, we struggled through the summer trying to have it both ways—trying to remain an "insurgent" campaign and "the outsider" while at the same time trying to unite and lead a more liberal, fractious Democratic Party, whose favorites we had just defeated.
We limped across the finish line in the November election, barely defeating President Ford, and only because people ultimately wanted "a change."
While the brilliant Obama campaign is properly focused on wrapping up the Democratic nomination, it would do well to cast a cold eye toward the general election, and plan accordingly. John McCain has all but kicked off his general election campaign with a gift from the New York Times, a thinly sourced story that McCain has effectively used to rally some of the alienated right-wingers in his party.
How hard will he hit Obama? In recent speeches the 71-year-old war hero seemed almost giddy as he derided the idea of the young Illinois senator as the leader of the U.S. military and the Free World. At the same time, in a moment of candor McCain's media guru, Mark McKinnon, told National Public Radio that he would be "uncomfortable being in a campaign that would be inevitably attacking Barack Obama" and having to orchestrate the negative media campaign against Obama that would be expected.
If Obama is put on the defensive on these "commander in chief" issues in the next month and simply tries to rebut specific charges, Obama and the context for the general election could be defined before the summer.
It is not difficult to imagine dignified ads showing McCain in flight training at age 25 and Obama at the same age going to Harvard; McCain flying sorties over Vietnam while at a comparable age Obama was named editor of the Harvard Law Review; McCain as a POW while Obama was a street organizer; McCain in the U.S. Senate and in Iraq with our troops in 2003 and Obama in the Illinois legislature.
And if these "commander in chief" issues sink in, McCain and the Republican attack machine will move quickly to make Obama a "big spender" and "the most liberal U.S. senator."
But this early salvo fired by McCain at Obama also presents a unique opportunity for Obama to demonstrate how he will organize and manage his presidency and lead our country. By preparing now for the general election Obama can prevent these expected attacks (or at least diminish their impact), making it easier to unite the Democratic Party while reassuring moderate Republican and independent voters that his administration will contain the best and brightest America has to offer.
What if Obama, in the next 30 to 60 days:
* Says he will name Independent Mike Bloomberg as his "domestic czar," given broad authority and charged with reconciling our country's fiscal mess with our domestic needs and opportunities. Bloomberg is a highly talented leader and visionary who has been tremendously successful in business and in politics. Bloomberg deserves a much larger stage to perform on. He might or might not want the portfolio of Secretary of Treasury, but having a person of his experience on the Obama team would reassure Wall Street and reinforce Obama's message of bringing all Americans together, regardless of party affiliation, to bring about change.
* Says he will name mainstream Democrat Sam Nunn, highly respected former senator and expert on defense issues and foreign policy (who has traveled the world for the past decade trying to contain the spread of nuclear weapons) to be his choice for Secretary of State. Here is a man who can go toe to toe with John McCain on any defense or foreign policy issue and enjoys the respect and admiration of foreign leaders around the world.
* Says he will name retiring Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, from Nebraska, war hero, successful businessman and thoughtful critic of the Iraq War, to be his Secretary of Defense to rebuild our nation's military power.
All three of these people have been vetted in years of public service and are widely known by the media, the political elite and the business community. Probably the one group that knows them least well will be the young Obama voters who make up the heart and soul of his movement. While there may be some understandable suspicion of these "old white guys" among Obama's true believers, the fact is that in a general election campaign he and his team will need to convince voters that they have the broad experience and knowledge to bring about the changes they believe in.
Sooner rather than later Sen. Obama must challenge McCain's view of U.S. interests in the world and convince general election voters that he has the means and the talent to implement his coherent vision and strategy. And he must buttress himself from attacks that will inevitably challenge his foreign policy bona fides. Who better to do it than an A-team of extremely experienced, competent, and tested professionals?
Suddenly the dynamics would change. It would no longer be the war hero versus the young community organizer and attorney. It would be John McCain and an old view of the world versus Team Obama—the best minds and combined experiences in U.S. politics—advocating Obama's new vision of U.S. political, military and economic interests in the world.
It is not easy making key leadership decisions in the middle of a campaign and asking people to serve in advance of an election. And there are some legal restrictions that would have to be understood and addressed; jobs cannot officially be promised in advance of an election. But Obama could at least get this or another team to say publicly that they would "seriously consider" or "look with interest" on an invitation to be part of the Obama administration.
It is not easy to take bold steps when the Obama campaign is riding a wave of adulation and risks fixing what isn't broken or, more important, upsetting supporters. Yet doing so would not only strengthen Obama's prospects of getting elected, it would be consistent with his message of changing the way Washington works—or doesn't work, as the case may be.