WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Political activist Tom Hayden and I have two things in common: we both attended the University of Michigan during the Pleistocene era and we both think Barack Obama will probably lose the 2008 presidential election.
For Hayden, the reason Obama will lose is simply this: a white war hero will always trump a black candidate who's talking about the economy. That's a seductive soundbite. But is it true?
There's no denying Obama's poll numbers are lackluster. Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report said before the Democratic convention that "it seems pretty clear that Obama has lost some ground, though exactly how much is unclear."
For me, there's only one way to find out what ordinary Americans (not pundits) are thinking about Obama these days: hit the bricks and ask them -- just like Jon Stewart admonished me to do weeks ago.
Lookin' For Night Owls
Inside the McDonalds on 17th Street, in the diverse Borderstan neighborhood of Dupont Circle, four young boys are growing restless as they wait to place an order. (What are they doing here at 10:30 PM anyway? Where are their parents?) I grab a Premium Roast Coffee (never mind the hour) and hightail it to a corner booth where several Gen-Xers aren't shy about expressing their increasing disillusionment with the Democratic candidate.
"The novelty's wearing off," labor union economist Peter Greenberg, 32, told OffTheBus. "And I doubt I'm the only one wondering whether the Democrats picked a wonderful but unelectable candidate."
For these young professionals, the more mainstream Obama becomes, the more he loses his distinction. They want him to dole out tougher medicine on the economy. "The baby boomers bankrupted the country. Obama still hasn't explained to me how he's going to fix this mess," said book distributor Mike Huling, 33, who is sitting on our booth rather than in it.
These Gen-Xers are less jazzed about the candidate than they used to be, which should raise a red flag about their motivation to vote in November. "Obama's deserting the people who got him the nomination. It's like watching a football team play it safe -- too safe to win," stock trader Matt Briner, 33, said.
The New York Times kinda knew this was going to happen: "We are not shocked when a candidate moves to the center for the general election. But Mr. Obama's shifts are striking because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions."
In August, pollster John Zogby reported that Obama's margins among younger voters (ages 25-34), city dwellers, and women dropped by as much as 12 points. It was a kick in the pants.
Anna Dinenna, 41, a much-younger-looking mother of two who's worried her teenage son is headed to Iraq, is voting for John McCain. "I'm afraid of an immediate troop withdrawal," Dinenna says. "Those young people are depressed. They're traumatized. They're on meds. Is America really ready to take care of them in one fell swoop? I think it's dangerous to even try, dangerous for the kids and their families."
Sixty-five-year-old cashier "M.H." told OffTheBus that for her, the problem with Obama is that he didn't pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate. "He lost millions of Hispanic votes and millions of senior votes with that one decision. Men have screwed up this world long enough. It's time to see what a woman can do for America. I'm angry...really angry...that Obama didn't offer Hillary anything at all."
Chirpin' With The Early Birds...
The next morning I head over to Dupont Circle while the air is fresh, the humidity low. Semi-retired NYC police officer Robert Bercaw, 65, and his wife Mercedes, 59, a semi-disabled customer service representative, are strolling through this treed urban park with its famous white marble fountain when I interrupt their idyll. Fortunately for me, the Bercaws are good sports. But they want to make it clear they're surprised Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate.
"Joe Biden is Old Washington! We were hoping for someone new," said Mercedes Bercaw. "If Obama wanted Old Washington, he should have picked Hillary. She has Washington experience, but there's also more of a change factor with her. She's a woman! That's change right there."
"Who's Joe Biden?" asked Darryl King, 48, a self-proclaimed "people person" who jumped into the conversation. "Obama picked the wrong V.P., he should have picked Hillary. She has lots of followers. I have no clue what Biden's issues are. Joe Biden has to reveal himself to the people, so the people can believe."
The announcement of Joe Biden as Obama's running mate earned the Democrats virtually no bump in the polls. The only recent vice-presidential choices to spark less voter reaction were Dick Cheney in 2000 and Dan Quayle in 1988.
On my way home I run into Albert, a neighbor who lives in Section 8 housing just a block from my home. Tall and extremely thin, he walks down the street with great difficulty yet offers to carry the grocery bags I'm schlepping from the Safeway. We sit down on a nearby retaining wall so he can rest a minute. I fill the time by asking, "Why do you suppose Obama's struggling to maintain his base?"
"Because he's always talking about helping the middle class, that's why. What about poor people? We think the middle class already got it pretty good," said Albert with spot-on clarity.
Paul Abrams says that polls cannot tell you what people base their emotional decisions on, because people themselves rarely are in touch with their inner psyches. But what if Abrams is wrong? What if people know, but don't care to reveal their perceptions -- not to be confused with their stand on the issues -- to strangers?
A 29-year-old lawyer I spoke with outside Rosemary's Thyme Bistro on 18th Street named Emily doesn't tell pollsters how disappointed she was with the timing of Obama's semi-botched text-message to announce his running mate. "I was at a birthday party that evening with six girlfriends. We refreshed our cell phones all night long to see who would get the first message, you know, so we could have a 'Yay!' moment. By the time the text arrived, the party was over."
Her friend Heather, a 29-year-old litigation consultant, doesn't tell pollsters that her 84-year-old grandfather, a retired pastor, sits at his computer all day long emailing members of his former congregation, mostly to tell them that "Obama's not a good old boy. He's not anti-abortion."
Remember when we all thought beating the Republications in '08 was going to be easy? I predict it won't be.
Obama puppet image part of series by Abbey Christine.