Time for Obama to catch a new wave

Political candidates are like surfers, always seeking the perfect wave — the perfect video wave — conveying the image they can ride to victory.

So they begin by paddling out with their platforms and just when they seem way over their heads, they try to catch the perfect wave. Actually, this is the point where there is one difference between ordinary surfers and political surfers: Politicians and their strategists are forever trying to make waves as well as ride them. The best of the breed make their own media wave, then hop on and ride it. The trick then is to just stay balanced, maybe tack a bit to the left, then to the right, and hope the wave will be strong enough to go far enough.

Because no wave lasts forever. So timing is all.

Barack Obama both made and then caught just right his most excellent “Candidate of Change” media-image wave — and he rode it grandly for so many months. If this had been any other presidential-campaign year, Obama’s “Change” wave would have swept him all the way to a presidential nomination.

But things started so ungodly early in the 2008 campaign that not even the best of waves could have carried the best of candidates the whole distance. And that is where Campaign 2008 is right now: Obama and his political strategist, David Axelrod, seem to have been a bit late in sensing that the candidate’s wave had run its course.

For months, Obama’s “Change” wave was so powerful because it conveyed a sense of hope, optimism and a sense that we can have a hand in shaping our destiny. The wave appealed to voters from the left, the independent center and some in the center-right. But there are limits to what an image wave can accomplish in a campaign, especially one that started so early and lasts so long. And so, even people who are desperate for change — liberals, mainstreamers and conservatives who know how bad the Bush years have been for America — have had time to think again about their own first wave of infatuation.

They liked Obama’s first wave that promised change. But Hillary Rodham Clinton’s persistent countercharge also reverberated. As she questioned what this “change” really meant, even voters who didn’t like her way of saying it began to think they want to know something more about whether Obama was up to the job. This is not new. Rewind to 1984: Democratic Sen. Gary Hart rode a video wave through early victories and was being likened to a new JFK — until Walter Mondale, the vice president under Jimmy Carter, began asking “Where’s the beef?”

Fast forward to 2008: To close the deal, Obama must find a way to convey just two more things to voters who basically liked his promise that he would be their agent of change: Voters want to get some clear sense of just what Obama would change and how he would be different in his conduct of the presidency.

In their private counsels, the Illinois senator, his Chicago-based strategist and their team are back to the business of making waves. Actually, just one more excellent wave should do it — if its substance and imagery convey both concerns.

Obama must go beyond his once-fine “Change” speech to discuss innovative approaches that clearly go beyond politics as usual. For example: His bold approach to leading us to true energy independence. (Every politico has promised it since President Richard Nixon unveiled his plan that he said would make America energy-independent by 1980.)

Now more than ever, Americans want a leader who understands their quest is really about security, in all facets of our lives: Job security, economic security, health security, retirement security, environmental security and, of course, homeland security.

Obama may be able to convince Americans that he is our best hope for restoring America’s respect around the planet.

As Obama’s new video wave washes through our living rooms on the TV news and in TV ads, voters must see more than just a brilliant young orator at huge rallies. We want to see a leader who looks both special and presidential.

We want to see a leader who looks like he belongs in the Oval Office. For a change.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)