What, Me Worry?

Why Obama acts like he’s 10 points up in the polls.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama apparently has not gotten the e-mail. He’s supposed to be panicked. He’s blowing a historic opportunity. He could lose the election. Worried Democrats have done everything but employ skywriting to get the message across that he needs to do something dramatic. Fast.

If there was a place to get hot and bothered, it was Elko, Nev., where Obama spoke Wednesday afternoon. He stood in the open on a black stage under the midday sun while flies buzzed relentlessly. He didn’t appear fazed. He sounded like a man who was ahead by 10 points. He wasn’t exactly listless—he implored voters to join his campaign for change and attacked John McCain—but he wasn’t urgent or exercised, either. He unveiled no new gambits. The only moment of sparkle came when he questioned whether McCain could make good on his challenge to take on the “old boys’ network.” With so many former lobbyists in his campaign, said Obama, the old boys’ network is what they call a staff meeting.

When this election is over, the Obama campaign’s cool demeanor will either be seen as its signature genius (“They kept their heads about them”) or its signature flaw (“They failed to respond to their opponent’s strategy”). We’ll know in 48 days.

Why are they so calm in Obama-land? I can’t find an account of Obama yelling at anyone during the entire campaign, and it’s not just the candidate who seems calm. His aides aren’t perfect, but given the level of chatter in the political echo chamber doubting their work, you’d expect them to be more snappish or bleary-eyed. There are no blind quotes from disgruntled aides sniping at each other in the press, which seems almost to defy human nature—even in the sunniest organizations, pressure plus high stakes usually creates at least one misanthrope (or, as we like to call them: sources). Even the famously disciplined Bush 2000 operation went squirrely in August under the pressure.

Maybe the Obama campaign is deluded, or spinning. Even if they’re really worried in his Chicago headquarters, no one dare let on because voters won’t want to elect a candidate whose team can’t take the heat.

Or maybe they’re not rattled because they’ve been through this before. If they’d listened to the polls and Democratic experts, they’d never have gotten in the race. In the summer of 2007, there were lots of Obama supporters who thought he should panic a little more—or risk losing to Hillary Clinton. The Obama campaign stuck to its plan and won. Aides often cite this lesson in explaining why they’re not going to overreact now.

Obama can also stay calm because he got a break this week. The public focus is now on the economy, an issue where Obama has advantages. It’s also harder for McCain to manufacture distractions—it would look out of touch. Plus, the Palin novelty has started to wear off. Obama is back in the lead in some polls. All of this means he doesn’t have to do anything flamboyantly out of character to get attention.

Obama can also remain calm on the outside because his campaign is changing in lots of ways to meet the shift in the landscape. The overall strategy and theme are the same—change vs. more of the same—but the campaign has adjusted some tactics. (McCain, by contrast, completely changed strategy by picking Sarah Palin and putting so much emphasis on reform.) Biden is attacking McCain more. To address the criticism that Obama doesn’t tell voters precisely how he will help them in the economic downturn, he released a two-minute ad highlighting the specifics of his plans. He’s added more into his stump speech, too. Tough ads are also running in swing states, like this one in Pennsylvania that accuses McCain of selling out workers.

On the stump, Obama has stopped talking about Palin, which was distracting him from drawing contrasts with McCain. Obama’s polling suggests initial interest in her is diminishing, and his aides scoff at the McCain campaign’s contention that Palin has put Iowa back in play as a battleground state. Obama had been comfortably ahead in the state, and it seemed out of McCain’s reach, but now McCain is planning a visit to the state based on what his aides say are signs that Palin has reignited his campaign there.

Meanwhile, Obama is in Elko, Nev.—just the kind of place you’d go if you were sure of your game plan. Just as Obama focused on caucus contests that came late in the Democratic nominating process, he’s focusing on places like Elko in the general election. Tuesday was his third visit there. Elko County hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, but the Obama campaign thinks that a little attention in Elko, where he benefits from an organization built during the Democratic caucuses, could help give him the margin he needs to win a state Bush carried by only 20,000 votes.

Obama has asked us to look at his campaign to understand how he would govern. Like McCain, Obama has said he will not make Bush’s mistake of holding on to dead-end strategies in the face of changing circumstances. So for Obama, who talks so much about change, the question is when and how he will change his own campaign when circumstances warrant. Part of the answer may be found in Elko.