Barack Obama has been the target of countless attacks, from countless directions, but seems to be hanging on fairly well. Slate’s Jack Shafer argues that Obama has achieved a level of “superslipperiness,” as something of a “Teflon-coated candidate.”
As long ago as March, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz demolished charges that the press was soft on Obama by cataloging the tough pieces published by reporters exhuming the candidate's past: his financial relationship with friend and fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who is now a convicted felon; his friendship with former Weather Undergrounder William Ayers; his casting of 130 "present" votes as an Illinois legislator; his nuclear energy compromise in the U.S. Senate, said to benefit a contributor; incendiary comments made by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; and more.
To that list add the recent critical dispatches tarring Obama as a flip-flopper. The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg found "the big papers … assembling quite a list of matters on which the candidate has 'changed his position,' including Iraq, abortion rights, federal aid to faith-based social services, capital punishment, gun control, public financing of campaigns, and wiretapping."
What's unique about Obama and his candidacy is that almost none of the stuff the press throws at him sticks. Nor is the press alone in its inability to stick him. Hillary Clinton hurled rocks, knives, and acid at her rival even before the primaries (see this Jake Tapper piece from ABC News) and later upped the ante in desperation. She claimed that he was unprepared to serve as commander in chief and accused him of insulting gun owners and the religiously faithful. The eleventh-hour tactics may have won Clinton votes, but they failed to undermine Obama.
In hoping to explain Obama’s ability to shake off the attacks, Shafer pointed to Obama’s “poise and discipline,” which “allow him to resist whatever bait the press and politicians dangle in front of him.”
Perhaps, but I think the broader argument is flawed, for two reasons.
First, Shafer notes a series of “controversies” that never stuck to Obama, but overlooks the fact that these stories didn’t stick because they were baseless, trivial, or both. Obama answered all the questions about the Rezko matter, and reporters moved on when they realized there was nothing there. Obama was hammered on his “present” votes in the state legislature, until everyone took a closer look and realized why this wasn’t controversial at all. The press went berserk with arguments that Obama had “flip-flopped” on Iraq, guns, and Bush’s faith-based initiative, but it didn’t last because Obama hadn’t “flip-flopped” on Iraq, guns, and Bush’s faith-based initiative.
In other words, Shafer wonders why none of these stories stuck. But it’s not that mysterious — they didn’t stick because there were no real stories there. There was nothing to stick.
Second, I’m not sure if Shafer’s premise is right, either. Nothing negative has stuck to Obama? I seem to recall a few polls showing tens of millions of Americans believing that Obama is a secret Muslim — and the percentage has gone up as more information has become available. Indeed, a Newsweek from earlier this month found 25% of Americans believe Obama was raised a Muslim, and 40% believe he attended a Muslim school as a child. Neither of these claims is true, but they’ve “stuck” thanks to a concerted smear campaign.
For that matter, Obama has been generally consistent on almost everything, but if a CNN poll from earlier this month is any indication, the “flip-flopper” attack was pretty successful in sticking, too (even if the charge obviously applies far better to McCain).
McCain has been in relentless attack mode all week. And guess what happened?
I’d be delighted if none of the attacks against Obama stuck, but as far as I can tell, he’s not that lucky.