As you've probably heard, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, a Republican, endorsed Barack Obama for president yesterday on "Meet the Press." I'm a little late on this--alas, I spent the weekend without my trusty laptop--but I still thought it'd be worthwhile to post a few quick thoughts on what the announcement accomplishes.
observers, like the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, have said that Powell
will help Obama overcome any lingering racial opposition. "Powell is a culturally individuated African-American hero," he wrote yesterday.
extent that there remain white voters who have inchoate worries about
Obama's race, it helps to have him associated with a man whose race
they've already gotten over." I disagree. Oprah Winfrey is a "culturally
individuated African-American hero," too, but her endorsement of Obama
last May hardly gave swing voters a compelling reason to support the
Illinois senator. The key thing about Powell isn't that he's black.
It's that he (unlike Winfrey) doesn't strike casual voters as your typical Obama supporter. He's a
Republican. He's a military man. He backed both Bushes. And he's
even donated to McCain. That's why Powell's endorsement is
most important element of Obama's extensive field operation is the
local validator: a person who looks like you, talks like you and
(presumably) thinks like you but who's still vouching for the unfamiliar face at the
top of the ticket. Powell has now become Obama's key validator. Ahead
by five to seven points in the polls--often
with more than 50 percent of the vote--Obama doesn't need to persuade
McCainiacs to jump ship. He simply has to prevent his softest
supporters--and a few undecideds--from reverting to his rival. Like
Powell, many of these folks are Republicans--some from military communities--who still
deeply respect McCain. He's well-qualified to speak to them--and on Sunday, that's exactly what he did.
delivered his argument in two parts. First, he sought to dispel--or
preempt--any doubts about Obama. Worried about Obama's inexperience?
Don't be, said the general: "he will be ready to take on these challenges on January 21st."
he's ready to be president on Day One."Suspect that Obama's tax policies are "socialist"? Nonsense, said the
Republican: "there's nothing wrong
with examining... who should be paying more
or who should be paying less, and for us to say that makes you a
socialist is an unfortunate characterization that isn't accurate."
Heard that Obama might be Muslim? "He's not," said the familiar,
respected figure--but "what if he [wa]s?" "Is
there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" Powell
answer is 'no.' That's not America." These are the three
issues--experience, taxes and "otherness"--most likely to drive
uncommitteds away from Obama on Election Day. Powell was essentially
saying, they don't bother me--so they shouldn't bother you.
pro-Obama part of Powell's endorsement has received the most media
attention--and understandably so. But from a political perspective, the
other part--the anti-McCain, anti-Republican part--will probably prove
more impactful. After praising Obama, Powell questioned McCain's
decision to select Sarah Palin as his running mate ('I don't believe
she's ready to be president of the United States, which
is the job of the vice president"). He criticized McCain's response to
the ongoing economic crisis ("almost every day there was a different
approach to the problem... he didn't have a complete grasp of the
economic problems that we had"). And he denounced the negative tone of
McCain's campaign ("what they're trying to connect [Obama] to is some
kind of terrorist feelings, and I think that's inappropriate"). Here,
Powell echoed the key concerns about McCain among uncommitted
voters--Palin, the economy and "politics as usual"--and confessed that
he's bothered by the same stuff.
Ultimately, it's easier for undecideds to justify siding with
Obama--and harder for them to consider reverting to McCain--when
someone like Powell, who they tend to trust, respect and agree with,
has said he
shares their doubts.
Traditionally, endorsements don't sway
voters. Powell's won't be any different. Solid Republicans will dismiss
it as predictable, or vengeful, or race-based, or whatever. But Powell
doesn't have to persuade solid Republicans. He merely has to help Obama
hang onto his softest supporters--i.e., maintain the
status quo. That lower bar--combined with the right message and the
right messenger--could very well make Powell's endorsement the first one in recent memory
that actually matters.