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Barack slips away as ‘Obama fatigue’ sets in PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 12 August 2008

When Barack Obama first showed up in a Hawaii class-room at the age of 10 in 1971, the white kids tittered at his dark skin and a red-haired girl tried to touch his curly black hair. On learning that his father was an African tribesman, one of his classmates asked him whether he ate people, reports The Sunday Times.

A different reception awaited Obama when he returned to the islands of his birth on Friday to begin a week-long family holiday. It was the first time that the Democratic presidential contender had returned to his childhood home since he declared himself a candidate for the White House; he has since become, by a wide margin, the most famous Hawaiian native in history.

In his memoir Dreams from My Father he painted a lyrical portrait of his upbringing with Gramps and Toot, the white grandparents who raised him while his mother worked in Indonesia: “Even now, I can retrace the first steps I took as a child and be stunned by the beauty of the islands... the trembling blue plane of the Pacific... the moss-coloured cliffs... the North Shore’s thunderous waves.”

His wife, Michelle, has said that you “can’t really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii”. His half-sister, Maya, whom he will be seeing in Honolulu this week, calls Hawaii “such a generally sweet place... you can come back here from almost anywhere and refresh yourself mentally”.
It sounds the perfect place to cure a dangerous affliction that is becoming known as “Obama fatigue”. It is not just that the 47-year-old Illinois senator is weary after a year of campaigning; it is more that America seems to be wearying of too much news about Obama.

Apart from an obligatory public meeting, a Democratic fundraising dinner and a string of inevitable photo opportunities, Obama hopes to spend his week swimming in the Pacific, practising basketball, eating ice cream with his daughters, playing Scrabble with his family and avoiding all questions about awkward issues such as his vice-presidential choice, his relations with Hillary Clinton and his big speech to the Democratic convention, which will open in Denver on August 25.

His holiday got off to a rocky start when John Edwards, the former presidential candidate, confirmed persistent tabloid reports that he had had an affair after his wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Edwards made clear he will not be appearing in Denver and the scandal is likely to blow over quickly.

Obama’s aides hope that a low profile for the rest of this week will help to reverse a disturbing trend in opinion polls and media reporting that has portrayed him as overexposed and increasingly vulnerable to mocking attacks by both his Republican opponent and a growing army of late-night comedians.

David Letterman, a popular chat-show host, joked last week that Obama had become so overconfident that he was proposing changing the name of Oklahoma to “Oklabama”. Jay Leno quipped that when Obama was asked about perceptions that he was arrogant, “he said he was above having to answer that question”.

Having surfed to the Democratic nomination on a wave of benevolent US media approval, Obama is now grappling with a distinct lack of respect. A survey from the Pew Research Centre concluded that 51% of independent voters felt that they had been “hearing too much” about Obama. John McCain, the resurgent Republican senator, has also revived his moribund campaign with a series of crude but effective videos variously comparing Obama with Paris Hilton and Moses.

McCain’s hard-hitting advertising campaign has turned the 71-year-old Republican into an improbable success on YouTube, the video-sharing website, where Obama has long ruled as America’s most-watched politician.

McCain’s videos attracted more viewers than Obama’s for seven days in a row last week, and on 11 of the previous 14 days. He attracted even more attention when Hilton weighed in with a video of her own about “that wrinkly white-haired guy... the oldest celebrity in the world”.

All this has sent a frisson of doubt through the Democratic party ranks, where memories of Senator John Kerry’s implosion against Bush four years ago are still raw.

“Democrats are worried,” said Tad Devine, a former Kerry strategist.

“We’ve been through two very tough elections at the national level and it’s easy to lose confidence.”

Even though Obama edged back into a slim lead in opinion polls last week, some Democrats remain concerned that by sticking to the high road and refusing to “go negative” on McCain, he is allowing a Kerry-like image of aloofness to stick.

“I would answer back hard,” said Senator Charles Schumer, a tough New York Democrat.

“What do you mean, Obama isn’t one of us?” he added. “It’s John McCain who wears $500 Italian shoes, has six houses and comes from one of the richest families in his state. It’s Barack Obama that climbed up the hard way.”

Obama dispatched his wife to argue his case on television chat shows. “It’s funny to have anybody characterise Barack as an elitist,” she said. “You know, this kid who was raised by a single mother... has walked away his entire life from lucrative careers to work in the community.”

What worries many Democrats is that Obama’s success in raising campaign funds directly from donors through the internet and elsewhere has in effect marginalised the independent groups who might instead have acted as surrogates in attacking McCain. The Republicans have long relied on surrogate supporters to do the dirty work against their Democratic opponents – notably the Swift Boat veteran group that smeared Kerry’s Vietnam war record. At least one Democratic group that formed with the intention of attacking McCain has been forced to disband for lack of funds.

Relaxing at his luxury hotel in Hawaii this week, Obama will be surveying a battlefield that has changed drastically since he addressed 200,000 cheering Germans at a rally in Berlin last month.

Even that iconic moment has become grist to McCain’s mill – in one of his best lines in the campaign so far, the Arizona senator told a rally of all-American Harley-Davidson motorcycle fans in South Dakota: “As you may know, not long ago a couple of hundred thousand Berliners made a lot of noise for my opponent. I’ll take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day.” That line seems certain to turn up in yet another McCain video before November’s vote.

The good news for Obama is that Hawaii seems to offer a blissful respite from the campaign grind. Not all his childhood memories were magical – he was once derided as a “coon” and, by his own admission, “dabbled in drugs and alcohol”. He may also have some apologising to do to his 86-year-old grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, whom he incautiously described earlier this year as “a typical white woman” who feared black crime.

Yet he will need to refresh himself mentally if he is to cope with jokes such as this one: Bill Maher, a popular satirist, noted that Catholic groups had forced a New York art gallery “to shut down an exhibition of a 6ft image of Jesus in chocolate. Or, as Democrats call it, Barack Obama”.

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