Democrat Barack Obama wants to prove he’s ready to be a wartime commander in chief. Republican John McCain hopes to sell the idea that his rival is not.
The return of Iraq and Afghanistan to the forefront of the presidential campaign illustrates how both sides increasingly seem to view the race as largely a referendum on Obama, a first-term Illinois senator trying to become the first black president.
"I will end this war as president," Obama said of Iraq and promised anew that he would redirect U.S. efforts to Afghanistan. The likely Democratic nominee struck a stately pose Tuesday as he delivered a lengthy foreign policy address ahead of an upcoming overseas trip. He spoke from a podium that said "Judgment to Lead" set up before an array of American flags.
Answering Obama, McCain gave his own speech in which the ex-Navy pilot, Vietnam prisoner of war and four-term Arizona senator cited his decades of military experience to paint his rival as unprepared.
"I know how to win wars," the GOP nominee-in-waiting asserted, leaving unspoken the suggestion that Obama does not. "In wartime, judgment and experience matter. … The commander in chief doesn’t get a learning curve."
Clearly, the race is on to define the still relatively unknown Obama, and whichever candidate does a better job making his case could well win the White House. Their dueling foreign policy remarks Tuesday underscored as much.
To be sure, Obama criticized the waging of the Iraq war, and national security as a whole, under President Bush, while McCain argued that last year’s troop increase strategy that Bush championed was appropriate.
But with polls showing national security is an area in which Obama lags McCain, Obama largely sought to portray himself as competent to lead the country in the face of national security threats — and answer voters’ worries — while McCain tried to raise questions about the fitness of Obama to oversee a nation at war — and stoke voters concerns.
In surveys, McCain leads Obama on the question of who would a good commander in chief. And an AP-Yahoo poll taken last month showed 39 percent said McCain would do a better job of handling Iraq, compared with 33 percent for Obama.
"This campaign is not going to be about McCain," said Chris Lehane, a Democrat who worked on Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000. "It’s ultimately going to be an up or down vote on whether the country is ready for the change Obama represents."
Todd Harris, a Republican aide on McCain’s 2000 White House bid, said that given the mood of the country, "there might be a lot of voters who would never choose McCain over Obama. But they might look at Obama and decide he is not acceptable and, therefore, by default vote for McCain."
Republicans and Democrats alike say this campaign could be shaping up as the mirror image of the 1980 presidential race.
Back then, the public wasn’t happy with Democrat Jimmy Carter in the White House. The economy was tanking. There was turmoil overseas with hostages in Iran and soaring oil prices. Republican Ronald Reagan represented a different type of politician, yet voters were questioning whether he was up to the job. That kept the contest relatively close through the summer. Eventually, Reagan endeared himself to voters, eased their concerns and won handily that fall.
Though far from its conclusion, the 2008 campaign bears similarities to that race a generation ago.
Voters crave a new direction after eight years of Bush. Wall Street is in turmoil, gasoline and food prices soar. Wars rage in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, while the political environment solidly tilts in Democrats’ favor and the party has a fresh face as its expected nominee, the race remains close four months before the election — certainly, at least in part, because of doubts about Obama.
Thus, Obama is working to fill in the blanks for voters who are uneasy about him. His speeches and ads flesh out details of his biography and proposals. And he casts himself as a transformational figure who transcends partisanship and brings fresh ideas to fix Washington.
Make no mistake: Obama, himself, recognizes the odds of a black man with only a few years of national political experience and a different-sounding name winning the presidency.
"John McCain calls himself the underdog. I will simply point out, for reasons you might consider apparent, that I am the underdog. I will be the underdog until I’m sworn in," Obama said wryly last week at an Atlanta fundraiser.
Republicans in turn are mindful that given the hurdles for the GOP this year, their best shot at retaining the White House may rest on arguing that Obama is inexperienced and, thus, risky. It’s akin to what Bush sought to do four years ago when he portrayed Democrat John Kerry as an untrustworthy flip-flopper.
McCain’s latest campaign ad signaled a fresh effort to raise questions about Obama. Without mentioning Obama, it referenced his eloquent rhetoric and frequent use of the word "hope" to suggest the Democrat could not guarantee results.
"Beautiful words cannot make our lives better. But a man who has always put his country and her people before self, before politics, can," the ad says. "Don’t ‘hope’ for a better life. Vote for one."
Liz Sidoti covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press and has covered national politics since 2003.