Over 200,000 people gathered in Berlin to cheer one of the most featureless speeches of Barack Obama's campaign, but the Democratic candidate couldn't carry that energy home with him. Even after his grand tour, Obama's poll numbers--both nationally and in key states--declined or remained unchanged. He consistently leads John McCain by 3-4 points, but the latest Pew survey shows that 48 percent of the public suffers from "Obama fatigue." In this most Democratic of years, the Democratic candidate can't seem to break away.
Of course, he's still winning, and he's currently projected to improve on his predecessor's Electoral College tally by at least 45 votes. But no one is talking about a landslide. This does not have the markings of another 1932, when FDR racked up 472 electoral votes, or another 1952, when Eisenhower won 442. It more closely resembles 1976, when a relatively untested Democratic reformer eked out a narrow victory against a Republican saddled with a sluggish economy.
Obama has gone out of his way to raise expectations about the outcome of this election, claiming that it will not be another tied contest with both campaigns fighting over a few middle-of-the-road voters in a couple of battleground states. But that is exactly the direction in which the election is heading. There is little evidence that the two major political coalitions have changed so radically as to allow Obama to move far beyond Kerry and Gore levels of support.
One theory for his failure to catch on argues that despite having his life chronicled in greater detail than any previous nominee, Obama remains vaguely foreign, his identity--in David Brooks's
term--"elusive." For all his bestselling introspection, Obama isn't relatable. Taking an alternate view, Karl Rove claims that the Obama campaign is nothing but biography, though that description applies much better to the ramshackle McCain effort with its nostalgia tours and sepia-toned ads.
Meanwhile, observers on the Left, such as Susan Estrich, have become increasingly nervous about Obama's slight polling advantage, recalling much larger Dukakis leads in the summer of 1988. Unwilling to address Obama's weaknesses, they instead operate on the presumption that Republicans should not be doing as well as they are. The fear that Obama cannot, in Bill Clinton's words, "close the deal"--a lingering dread in the last months of the primary season--may return and escalate into panic if Obama loses his lead after both parties hold their conventions. …