Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama Remains Weak on Leadership, Poll Finds

While the new Gallup tracking numbers find Barack Obama benefitting from media coverage of the Democratic National Convention, Obama still lags behind presumptive GOP nominee John McCain on leadership credibility:

McCain has an edge over Barack Obama in the public's eyes as a strong and decisive leader, and McCain is also significantly more likely to be viewed as able to handle the job of commander in chief. These facts underscore an area of weakness for Obama that McCain has attempted to exploit in recent campaign ads, and that Obama could in theory fruitfully address in his high-visibility acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night.

The latest USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Aug. 21-23, asked Americans to indicate whether a list of characteristics and qualities best fit Obama or McCain....

McCain is significantly ahead on a single, but important, dimension: "is a strong and decisive leader." Not coincidentally, this has been a key focus in recent McCain attack ads against Obama. (Despite the ads, there has been almost no change since mid-June in perceptions of who is the better leader.)

A separate set of questions included in the recent poll asked respondents to indicate whether they believe Obama and McCain could "handle the responsibilities of commander in chief of the military."

Obama clearly operates at a decided perceptual deficit compared to McCain on this dimension. Eighty percent of Americans say McCain can handle the responsibilities of being commander in chief, compared to 53% for Obama. These views have not changed throughout the summer.

McCain's edge almost certainly reflects in part that he was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and an officer in the U.S. Navy for decades, while Obama did not serve in the military. It may also reflect the fact that McCain is older, has more experience in the U.S. Senate and federal government, and has taken a leading role in the Senate in many foreign policy issues, most notably the Iraq war. If these are the major underlying facts informing Americans' opinions about the candidates, then it is unclear to what extent Obama's rhetoric or McCain's campaign ads could change the existing perceptions.
Gallup suggests that if Obama does not attempt or succeed at changing Americans' views of his leadership qualities, he'll continue to suffer liabilities on a key dimension of voter preferences on November 4.

Note, too, an additional complication:
Pew Research indicates that the public knows little about Obama's substantive policy positions, so if in tonight's address Obama focuses on values and leadership at the expense of policy, his campaign will remain the netherland of uplifting "hope and change"( instead of the harder certainty of solutions to the country's problem). Conversely, belting out a policy-driven speech runs the risk of technocratic overload and of diluting the message of GOP incompetence that's driving the need for political transformation.

In other words, Obama's got a tall order in front of him at Mile High Stadium.