Six months ago, Americans were worried about Barack Obama’s inexperience and John McCain’s age and adherence to President Bush’s policies. Today? Ditto.
Granted, most normal people are not yet besotted with the upcoming presidential election. Vacations, gas prices, the upcoming Olympics and the sagging economy are more important right now.
But we all know this is a crucial election, and for the first time many young people as well as older, established folks (read mortgage or children or a long-standing gripe against the system) plan to vote. With polls showing vast dissatisfaction with the job Bush has done and a wide belief (three out of four Americans) that the country is on the "wrong track," voters this election want to get it right.
Obama’s first overseas trip since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, while successful by most standards and a big step toward assuring Americans that he can play on the world stage, will not eliminate the nugget of doubt that he might not be ready.
McCain’s experience in national security and his Vietnam War record will not erase that kernel of fear that he would be a Bush clone or that being the oldest person elected to a first White House term would not necessarily be the right qualification for a rapidly changing world.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll found that 58 percent of those surveyed (1,003 people interviewed between July 18 and 21) are more comfortable with McCain’s background and values than Obama’s. Fifty-five percent are worried about freshman senator Obama’s relative lack of experience in foreign and national affairs.
Yet Obama, nationwide, has held a six-point lead over McCain for most of the summer.
That tells pollsters that Americans are making this election a referendum on Obama: Is he ready? Half of all likely voters are wondering whether Obama would be a good president. Only one-fourth of them ask themselves that question about McCain.
Thus, Obama’s trip abroad and his rousing speech in Berlin (now is the time to tear down the walls of bigotry, poverty and racism) convinced some Americans he would be ready to lead next January. This constituted bad news for McCain, who had an awful July. (Verbal gaffes, pictured in a golf cart while Obama was in Iraq, scheduled to go on an oil rig until a hurricane struck, etc. McCain is lucky most people aren’t paying attention until late August.)
But the polls also show McCain should not despair. While Americans are still intrigued with the untested but exciting Obama, they feel safe with McCain as a backup.
That means the election could go either way. Events — both national and international, political ads — negative and positive, and the traditional round of conventions and debates will have a big impact. These two men differ on almost every important issue; it will take us months to sort it all out.
Will Americans believe McCain’s current bogus ad claim that Obama is responsible for high gas prices because of his reluctance to give oil companies more drilling rights (instead of making them drill on the millions of public acres to which they already have access)? Will Americans be swayed by Obama’s still-unspecified-but-flowery pledge of "change"? Will they accept him at face value that he is the son of a single mother, raised by white grandparents in Kansas, who struggled to make something of himself? Will the completely phony rumor that he is Muslim (he is a Christian) resonate? Will Americans elect a black man president who says he is a "citizen of the world"?
Many questions, no firm answers. A lot of people have their gut instincts, but nobody knows who will be the next president. For those who love politics, it’s a great year.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)