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Is Obama underperforming?

By Jonathan V. Last

Since he clinched the Democratic nomination last month, Barack Obama has consistently led John McCain in the polls. But his lead has been generally modest. He never received a bounce from becoming the nominee, and today his lead is almost paper-thin — generally about four points in most polls.

The electoral environment is still tilted heavily toward Democrats. In generic congressional ballot polls, Democrats maintain a steady double-digit lead over Republicans. Which means that Obama is running behind the Democratic Party in general.

The other important metric is the right-track/wrong-track poll number, where respondents are asked if they believe the country is generally moving in the right, or wrong, direction. Today, only 15 percent say right track; 78 percent say wrong track.

Since Obama began his ascendancy in January, the wrong-track numbers have actually increased.

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Even by the measure of money, Obama is underperforming. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold him to the standard he set this winter, but before recording a $52-million June, his fund-raising numbers had declined for three months.

Clearly, something is going on. Three things come to mind:

First, people forget that Obama won the nomination by gaming the system, not getting the most votes.

This isn’t meant to diminish his accomplishment. Obama won fair and square, and his insurgent victory against a heavy favorite was the most impressive. But it does mean his electoral base may not be as broad or deep as you might assume.

Second, Obama made a strategic decision to abandon his original campaign narrative in favor of being himself closer to the political center.

For the last year, the pitch was that this freshman senator was not a typical politician. He promised to eschew politics-as-usual and be a different, more principled, kind of leader. During the last eight weeks, though, Obama has abandoned a host of earlier, left-ish positions — on FISA, public financing, Iraq and more — in order to position himself closer to the center.

On one level this makes sense; America has never elected a president as liberal as the Obama of the Democratic primaries. So Obama is now much closer to the political mainstream and is more ideologically electable. By changing some of his policy positions, Obama closed off certain avenues of attack.

But the price of this move was his original narrative: It is now difficult for Obama to claim to be anything other than an ordinary, hard-nosed politician.. But the most important shift in the dynamic of the race is that Obama has become the incumbent.

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Partly, this is the fault of the media, but the candidate has done his part to appear as though his ascension need only be ratified in November.

Obama has talked about his plans to redecorate the Lincoln bedroom and has proposed that he address the German people from the Brandenburg Gate (a position usually reserved for heads of state). He has referred to his time as a senator in the past tense and has crafted his own presidential seal.

All of which has the effect of making the election not about John McCain or President Bush or even the Republican Party, but about Barack Obama. And it ties Obama to the status quo. As the presumptive president, he is no longer the outsider or the challenger, but rather the establishment figure.

It’s an interesting gamble, and Obama may pull it off. But why he would trade his standing as an insurgent candidate running against the incumbents for a position as the assumed commander-in-chief is anyone’s guess.

Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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