Who is Obama really running against?

Patty Culhane is White House Correspondent of Al Jazeera.

I’ve been asked to tell you why I think this week’s Democratic National Convention matters. I can sum it up in just a few words: Barack Obama is not really running against Mitt Romney.

Alright, literally, he is: both names will be on the ballot. But there’s more than that happening in this election.

On paper, this race shouldn’t be as close as it is. Romney is not what most political consultants would call a great candidate. He had a tremendous problem getting the conservative base on board during the Republican primaries.

He’s a Wall Street guy and right now Americans are still really angry at Wall Street. I’ve heard most of the “experts” on US television describe his convention speech as “workmanlike”, rather than “inspiring”.

Beyond the showmanship shortfall, that seems to matter so much in US elections, is the issue of his policy positions. Most people probably can’t tell you what he would do in office.

He says he’ll cut the deficit and taxes while somehow growing the military. He says that he would cut regulations, but has not specified which ones. His lack of clarity on what, precisely, he would do once in office has begun to get voters concerned.

So, with all of that in mind, why is Obama, who is generally well-liked, still in a dead heat with Romney?

It might just be because Obama isn’t just running against Romney, he’s running against himself. Specifically, himself from four years ago – the candidate the US met in 2008.

I’ve been all over this country in the months leading up to the election and everywhere I’ve been I’ve heard the same refrain from young, old, black, white, Hispanic, men and women: “It’s just not the same.”

That’s a big problem for this president. If you believe the polls, this is going to be a close election. There is a relatively small group of undecided voters out there. If Obama does really well at the convention, he could convince a majority of them to join his side, which could prove helpful – perhaps even decisive.

Still, that’s probably not his biggest challenge. In a race like this, what really matters is whether the people who tell pollsters they are probably going to vote for you, actually take the time to do it.

The outcome of this race will be determined by voter turnout. If Obama supporters are all focusing on how it felt so much better last time, they are unlikely to go through even the slightest hassle when casting a ballot.

This is not a country where voting is mandated, or even socially demanded. The overall voter turnout in 2008 was 64 per cent according to the Census Bureau. So these few days of national attention are the president’s chance to remind voters why they loved him before, and to tell them that they can be in love again.

Think of it like this: it’s kind of like those stories you hear, where a woman goes on a first date with a guy and she could listen to him for hours. He says all the right things. They get married, have a couple of kids and after a few years, she starts saying: “It’s just not the same.”

He’s already proven he’s a great talker, so what else can the man in our story do? Perhaps the President should look into sending the nation flowers? If that seems like a waste of campaign cash, he probably has only one option. Give an amazing speech that moves people, which goes beyond pretty words delivered well. He has to somehow wash off the grit and grime that seems to be coating the American public after two years of broken government and months of nasty television ads that have forced the ugliness into our homes.

His words have moved people to tears before, but this time, he may just have to do it better than that man we all met in 2008. That Obama set the bar pretty high, and that’s the President’s real problem.

Like the man in this made up but familiar story, he would likely be well served to remind the country of where they’ve been and all they made it through together. He could also go into great detail about where they should go next.

It’s not just Mitt Romney that has relied on broad statements but little details. The Obama campaign hasn’t been very specific about what the president would do with another term.

The campaign theme is “forward” – but to what? The Republicans plastered “We believe in America” all over their convention hall, which they probably saw as a slight against Obama, but in reality likely seemed pretty base and silly to the swing voters they were trying to sway.

The president can distinguish himself with specifics: a plan. That is the politically risky move because, quite frankly, the country faces some tough choices, and it’s hard to tell people they are going to have to sacrifice. It’s unclear if the campaign will be prepared to do that.

What I do know is this: like any relationship, over time, shared experiences can forge a strong bond, maybe not as exciting or passionate as love at first sight, but more meaningful.

There is something magical in itself about the understanding and dependability of a long-term relationship.

Now Obama just needs to convince an entire country of that. And he can’t even use flowers to do it – though I suspect he’ll have more than just a few balloons.

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