If John McCain can win this election race with a 50-pound ball called "George W. Bush" wrapped around one ankle and a 50-pound ball called "The U.S. Economy" wrapped around the other, then he deserves to represent America in the next Olympics in any race he wants swimming, cycling or track I don't care how old he is. He would be the Michael Phelps of politics.
I confess, I watch politics from afar, but here's what I've been feeling for a while: Whoever slipped that Valium into Barack Obama's coffee needs to be found and arrested by the Democrats because Obama has gone from cool to cold.
Somebody needs to tell Obama that if he wants the chance to calmly answer the phone at 3 a.m. in the White House, he is going to need to start slamming down some phones at 3 p.m. along the campaign trail. I like much of what he has to say, especially about energy, but I don't think people are feeling it in their guts, and I am a big believer that voters don't listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs.
If you as a politician connect with voters on a gut level, they will follow you anywhere and not fret about the details. If you don't connect with them on a gut level, you can't show them enough details. Obama early on, and particularly with young people, connected on a gut level like no other politician since Ronald Reagan.
But in recent weeks, I feel as though he has lost that gut connection. I thought his convention speech contained no memorable lines or uplifting visions. It never got me out of my seat. Forget trashing McCain's ideas. If Obama wants to rally his base, he has to be more passionate about his own ideas. I have long felt that what propelled Obama early was the fact that many Americans understand in their guts that we need a change, but the change we need is to focus on nation-building at home. We're in decline. We need to get back to work on our country. And that is going to require strong, smart government.
Who is bailing out Fannie Mae? Who is going to build a new energy system? Health care? More tax cuts are not going to do it. But I am just not sure that Obama is making the sale that he has the plan and passion to unite and mobilize the country for this task.
In a way, I would love to hear Obama say, just for shock value: "I am so eager to do whatever it takes to fix these problems that I am ready to be a one-term president. Mine will not be a presidency that is confined to the first 100 days. But that is what we have fallen into, folks. The first 100 days have become the only 100 days. Once they are over, presidents are told that they have to trim their sails to get ready for the midterm elections, and once the midterms are over they are told that they have to trim their sails and get ready for the next presidential election. We can't solve our problems with a government of 100 days. I am going to work the hard problems the hard way for 1,461 days."
I don't know how long or high the "Sarah Palin bounce" will go, but I would take her very seriously as a politician. She may not know nuclear deterrence theory, but she can deliver a line. "I think there are a lot of women out there that look at her, holding her baby, talking about being a hockey mom, and say, 'She knows what I feel; she's going through what I am going through,"' remarked leadership expert John Maxwell.
As Neil Oxman, political consultant at The Campaign Group, put it to me: For half the country, "Sarah Palin is Roseanne from the 'Roseanne' show. 'Roseanne' was the No. 1 comedy five years in a row and seven out of nine in the top 10." She is connecting at a gut level. So does McCain and, therefore, they don't need to give their constituents many details.
This race has a long way to go. It is still Obama's election to lose. But Obama got where he is today by defining himself as the agent of change and by defining change as the issue in this election. McCain, with Palin's help, has once again not only made Obama's experience an issue, but he has now moved in on Obama's strength and tried to define the GOP ticket as the party of "change."
How, you ask, can two people running with the exact same policies as the party that has been in power for eight years say they are the agents of "change?" That's politics. But what this has done is to make the word "change" as a campaign slogan meaningless. Obama will need to find another way to connect his ideas clearly, crisply and passionately.Because, while the pollsters tell us it is still really close, my own totally unscientific, seat-of-the-pants poll tells me this: When you say Obama's name today and ask people for their first impression a quick, flash, gut, first impression no single word or phrase or policy comes to mind. His opponents will fill that vacuum if he doesn't. They already are.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.