Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, North America

U.S.: Obama Solidifies Lead Amid Turmoil in Washington

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Sep 29 2008 (IPS) - With just five weeks before the Nov. 4 presidential elections, Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama has built a strong lead that his rival, Republican Sen. John McCain, could find difficult to reverse.

Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, at a rally in Detroit, Michigan on Sep. 28, 2008.  Credit: David Katz/Obama for America

Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, at a rally in Detroit, Michigan on Sep. 28, 2008. Credit: David Katz/Obama for America

Obama's campaign has been aided by the financial crisis that has dominated the news for the past two weeks, a better-than-expected performance Friday in the first of three nationally televised presidential debates, and growing doubts that McCain's vice presidential pick, Gov. Sarah Palin, is up to the job. He is now leading by a 50-42 percent margin, equal to the widest ever recorded by a five-month-old daily tracking poll by the Gallup organisation.

Other national tracking polls released since Friday confirm a growing lead by Obama over McCain, more than nullifying strong gains made by the Arizona senator after the Republican Convention in St. Paul earlier this month and the initially rapturous reaction by his party's Christian Right base to Palin's selection as his running-mate.

Two major Internet betting sites also suggest that Obama is coming out of September with the wind at his back.

The Iowa Electronic Markets (, run by the College of Business of the University of Iowa, is currently giving Obama two-to-one odds for winning the all-important electoral college – its widest margin since June. The Intrade Prediction Market (, which had McCain breathing down Obama's neck just 10 days ago, now shows a nearly 61-39 spread in favour of the Democrat.

And, in the wake of Friday's debate, one of the most closely-monitored poll analysis websites,, gave Obama an unprecedented 80-percent chance of winning the election.

"Here's the long and short of it for John McCain," wrote 538's director, Nate Silver, on his blog Sunday. "Barack Obama has as large a lead in the election as he's held all year. But there is much less time left on the clock than there was during other Obama periods of strength, such as in February, mid-June or immediately following the Democratic convention. This is a very difficult combination of circumstances for him."

Silver, whose statistical models predict that Obama will win the national popular vote by about 3.3 percentage points on election day November, added that such a lead "might not sound like that much, but it's fairly significant: we've been through two conventions and one debate, voters have dug their heels in, and Obama's position in the Electoral College is extremely robust" – a reference to his lead in the all-important race to win in states whose combined electoral votes will determine the election's outcome.

The latest polls also show significant advances by Democratic candidates in the U.S. Senate, suggesting for the first time that the party may hold a filibuster-proof 60 of 100 seats in the upper chambre in the next Congress. Democrats currently hold only 51 seats, including one by self-styled "independent" Democrat Joseph Lieberman who supports McCain for president.

''The bottom line is that things have gotten worse for Senate Republicans over the past few weeks, so much worse that a magnitude of losses that seemed impossible just a few months ago now seems entirely possible," warned the influential National Journal's chief political analyst, Charlie Cook, Friday.

The latest presidential polling appears to confirm that McCain's gains coming out of the Republican Convention – he led in Gallup's daily tracking poll from Sep. 6 to Sep. 15 – could not be sustained, particularly in light of a series of events that has clearly favoured the Democratic ticket.

Of these, the most important appears to be the financial crisis triggered by the bankruptcy of the Lehman Bros. investment bank Sep. 14. The crisis, which the administration of President George W. Bush and the McCain campaign had vainly hoped to have put behind them by Congressional approval Monday of a 700-billion-dollar bailout package, has effectively re-focused public attention on the woes of the U.S. economy of which Democrats are widely perceived as better stewards.

McCain himself admitted last winter that he "doesn't really understand economics", and his long-time reliance for economic advice on former Sen. Phil Gramm, a major promoter of financial deregulation during the 1990s who was dropped from the campaign last summer after he accused the electorate of having "become a nation of whiners", has become increasingly embarrassing as the gravity of the situation has become clearer.

But McCain's reactions to the crisis have only made things worse. On the morning after the Lehman collapse, for example, he asserted that the economy's "fundamentals" were "strong". Several hours later, however, he said the "fundamentals" were "at great risk". And when McCain last week briefly "suspended" his campaign to return to Washington purportedly to broker the bailout deal, many analysts, including some Republicans, denounced the move as a stunt that needlessly injected "presidential politics" into a serious negotiation.

With the House's unexpected defeat of the package Monday, McCain could regret his intervention even more. Indeed, bets on Intrade moved sharply in Obama's favour immediately after the vote which, in any event, now ensures that the economic crisis will continue to dominate the news.

A second reason for the downturn in McCain's fortunes lies with Palin and rapidly diminishing media and public confidence in her fitness for the job, particularly after a one-on-one interview with the popular CBS News anchorwoman, Katie Couric, in which, among other things, the Alaska governor insisted that her state's proximity to Russia gave her valuable foreign policy experience.

"As (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin rears his ugly head and comes into the air space of the United States, where do they go?" she asked rhetorically in what overnight became grist for late-night comedy shows. "It's Alaska; it's just right over the border."

Her performance, combined with still-simmering scandals over her tenure as governor and as mayor of the small town of Wasilla before that, has provoked great anxiety among Republicans over her vice-presidential debate Thursday with Sen. Joe Biden, as well as growing calls, including from a few right-wing columnists, that she withdraw from the ticket to save McCain's election chances.

Obama has also clearly benefited from Friday's debate – the only one that was supposed to be devoted to foreign policy – with McCain himself. While mainstream pundits declared the outcome a draw or a slight gain for the Republican, a series of polls released over the last several days showed a consistent popular edge for Obama, particularly among the crucial independent and women voters, on the economy, honesty, leadership, and empathy for average voters.

Obama also made substantial gains in the areas where McCain had previously enjoyed significant leads, specifically on foreign policy, the war on terrorism, and national security, according to all of the polls, one of which found by a significant margin that Obama appeared "more presidential" than McCain.

Obama's better-than-expected performance, coupled with McCain's clear failure to "win" the debate, at least in the eyes of the public, if not the media, could be particularly costly, according to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. "A foreign policy discussion afforded McCain his best opportunity to aggravate doubts about his foe," he wrote Monday. "That opportunity is now gone."

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at

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