You could be forgiven if you have the impression we have two presidents of late — one elected, the other acting as if the November election is a mere formality. George W. Bush still holds the keys to the White House, but Barack Obama is assuming the trappings of office to a degree never before seen in American politics. And then there is John McCain, for whom even the role of underdog appears to be a challenge.
Bush still has exclusive rights to Hail to the Chief and Air Force One. For now at least, Obama has to settle for a campaign plane dubbed O-Force One. For a while, Obama spoke from lecterns adorned with his own faux presidential seal, which included an eagle with arrows in one talon and olive branches in the other. The seal was quickly retired after it was mocked as another example of Obama's hubris. It's not just the aura of the Obama campaign — it's the attitude. Even Obama's once adoring press corps has begun to complain that his campaign is increasingly characterized by secrecy, arrogance and even vindictiveness.
Obama won't officially claim the Democratic nomination until Aug. 28, and when he does, the event will take place in a Denver football stadium that can hold up to 75,000 cheering fans. Obama apparently is too big a star for an ordinary convention hall. According to the Atlantic magazine, he already has directed his staff to begin planning for the transition to the White House. And on his trip to the Middle East and Europe he told reporters he wanted to acquaint himself with foreign leaders "who I expect to be dealing with over the next 8 to 10 years.'' Presidents, of course, are limited to two four-year terms.
"Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee,'' wrote Dana Milbank of the Washington Post last week. "Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee.''
Milbank went on: "Fresh from his presidential-style world tour, during which foreign leaders and American generals lined up to show him affection, Obama settled down to some presidential-style business in Washington yesterday (July 29). He ordered up a teleconference with the (current president's) Treasury secretary, granted an audience to the Pakistani prime minister and had his staff arrange for the chairman of the Federal Reserve to give him a briefing. Then, he went up to Capitol Hill to be adored by House Democrats in a presidential-style pep rally.
"Along the way, he traveled in a bubble more insulating than the actual president's. Traffic was shut down for him as he zoomed about town in a long, presidential-style motorcade, while the public and most of the press were kept in the dark about his activities. … '
According to a witness Milbank did not name, Obama told House Democrats, "This is the moment … the world has been waiting for,'' adding: "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.''
Maybe a Bible verse is in order here. The book of Proverbs warns us: "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.''
How much Obama can the country take before succumbing to charisma fatigue? His president-in-waiting demeanor could turn off some undecided voters. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, the election could be less a contest between Obama and McCain than a referendum on Obama. Many voters are still struggling to reach a comfort level with him, which may explain why McCain remains within striking distance of Obama in the polls.
Meanwhile, McCain has cast himself as the underdog even as he struggles to come across as presidential. Like a real president, McCain has started delivering a weekly radio address. Earlier this year, the presumptive GOP nominee traveled to the Middle East, and more recently to Latin America. However, his trips were largely ignored by the news media, including the three television network anchors who tagged along with Obama.
Appearing presidential is the least of McCain's problems; he needs to show that he is more competent than his snake-bit campaign suggests. Are voters supposed to believe this guy can organize a government when he can't organize a campaign?
McCain can't stay on message because, as far as I can tell, he has no coherent message. He keeps flailing away at Obama, calling him an elitist one day and questioning his patriotism the next. And now the McCain campaign is running an ad comparing Obama's celebrity to that of pop stars Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. According to Politico.com, a McCain campaign memo asserted that "only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of hard-to-find organic brew Black Forest Berry Tea and worry about the price of arugula.''
Now there's a message that could take off: Barack Obama is a vain health nut who is about as qualified to be commander-in-chief as Paris Hilton. Real presidents eat red meat.
Is it too late for John McCain to start over?
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.