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August 20th, 2008
03:51 PM ET

Obama: In Need of a Game Changer

David Gergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

Say what you will about Republicans making a muddle of governing, but they sure know how to campaign. The turn of events that John McCain and his team have engineered in recent weeks is one of the most significant events of the campaign and now poses a serious threat of an upset this fall.

In just a few short weeks, they have not only thrown Barack Obama on the defensive and made him seem smaller but they have also made McCain seem larger and more commanding. And it has not just been one event but a string of them that they have tied together to propel McCain upward - from the ads (which most of us in the media didn't like) to the way McCain seized upon the drilling and Russian issues to his winsome performance at Saddleback. The capacity to create issues and momentum practically out of the ether is the sign of a strong campaign. Both McCain and his team are impressing voters.

And the results are now showing up in the polls: not only are some key states like Ohio breaking toward McCain but the Reuters/Zogby poll today showed McCain opening up a 5-point national lead - and stunningly, voters said in that survey that he would be better handling the economy than Obama! That is the bread and butter issue for the Democrats, one they should be able to seize upon to capture seats up and down the ticket.

Now, a couple of cautions are in order. This race was always going to tighten as Republican voters came home and McCain is benefiting to a considerable degree because that has been happening of late. In all the polls, there also remains a large bloc of voters who are undecided and many of them look like they are potential Obama voters. Campaigns also have a tendency to ebb and flow, so that the latest McCain tide could easily recede, especially if the Democrats put on a thunderous convention or McCain makes a mistake (not hard to envision). And there remains great, great enthusiasm on the Obama side and a general antipathy to the Bush years. So, it is important not to insert lots of caveats.

Still, this should be a huge wake-up call to Obama and the Democrats. From my perspective, Obama needs to introduce a game changer - and fast - before public opinion starts to gel around the notion that he is a phenom who deserves great respect but is not seasoned enough and would be too much of a risk in the Oval Office.

In part, he needs to change the narrative of the campaign - away from the notion that the biggest single problem facing the country - the "transcendent" threat of our time, as McCain argues - is terrorism. Terrorists and Islamic radicals are indeed a significant challenge and must be overcome but most observers would say that it is one of several challenges and that others are equally pressing, starting with the urgent, urgent need to put our own house in order and the need to deal with additional global issues such as global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rise of Asia. A major test of the Denver convention is whether Democrats can recast the central argument of the campaign and throw the Republicans back on the convention. Either Democrats persuade the country why they should now take charge or perhaps they aren't ready to govern after all.

But it can't stop there. Obama must also introduce a game changer through the way he signals who will be in the Oval Office with him. After all, no president governs all by himself; the success or failure of an administration also rests heavily on the team he assembles to work at his side.

Here are three obvious game-changers that one could envision:

1. The Hillary game changer - If he were to surprise the country - and the press - by naming Hillary Clinton as his running mate, he could turn the race upside down. Making the announcement in Springfield this Saturday, drawing from Lincoln's experience in assembling a "team of rivals" (the glorious book by Doris Kearns Goodwin), would be transformative. No one else would so galvanize the Democrats, bring a fighter to his side, and send a clear message that an Obama administration would bring experience to solving problems both at home and abroad. Has anyone looked what happened to jobs and wages under Bush vs. Clinton? The comparison is startling. And remember that a quarter of Hillary's voters still haven't "come home" to the Democratic column.

2. The Gore game changer – If Al Gore were to agree to come in for a single term, he, too, would galvanize Democrats and send a clear message to the country that an experienced, fresh team was coming to Washington to fix things at home and abroad. It's not just that Al Gore won more votes in 2000 than George W. Bush but he has also transformed his reputation through his Nobel prize and leadership on the environment.

Okay, okay, neither of these is really likely. If anything, signs today point increasingly toward Joe Biden as the choice (though others are still alive), and Biden would bring to the ticket stature, experience and a capacity to make the arguments, especially on national security. Biden in many ways is an excellent choice. But is he a game changer? You tell me. So, that leads to a possible third alternative:

3. Building Team Obama – Candidates in the past have toyed with the idea of naming their potential Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Treasury, etc., during the fall campaign, instead of waiting. There are many reasons why they haven't. But given his lack of executive experience, Obama clearly needs to revisit this possibility so that he can show the world not just who is going to the White House but who is going with him. If he decides that won't work, then why not try a variation? What if, for example, he asked men and women of great stature - people who would be trusted to run the country - to sign a public pledge this fall that in the event of an Obama election, they would be prepared to accept an invitation from him to come work in Washington at his side OR work in an informal, part-time advisory role? One could imagine a host of serious people - from Paul Volcker, Bob Rubin Mike Bloomberg and Larry Summers - to Madeleine Albright, Dick Holbrooke, Sam Nunn, David Boren, Joel Klein, and retired generals - who would step forward to take that pledge. (You and I could easily expand this list to include many others.)

The point is that leadership in the White House today is much more than a single, lonely heroic figure standing alone in the shadows of the Oval Office, weighing the great issues of the day. It is about pulling together an assemblage of great individuals and turning them into a team who will govern the country well. Whoever wins - whether McCain or Obama - will have to do that.


Filed under: Barack Obama • David Gergen • Raw Politics • T1
soundoff (83 Responses)
  1. mccormack

    i am an american but i have not lived in the USA for 25 yrs. from afar i am quite surprised to see americans so divided over the election between mccain and obama. doesn't anyone remember the last 8 yrs? don't you know where you are or where you want to go? it seems to me that if something is not working the next course of action is to change it. mccain is 4 more years of the same. at 71 yrs old will he even live out his full 4 yr term?

    August 20, 2008 at 11:05 pm |
  2. lampe

    you Obama supporters are the biggest bunch of babies there every was. You say Clinton supporters are sore-losers, but you should have just left us alone,to do as you like to say lick our wounds. But you kept writing nasty blogs day in and day out for two months now. But now that he might not win, it's still Clintons fault,grow up, you can't have it both ways. Don't ask for HRC, to campaign for him, and then still talk trash about her. If Obama loses, it will be because his supporters,his wife and he himself are to ignorant to know where they are wrong. And to stupid to admit it.

    August 20, 2008 at 11:03 pm |
  3. Ray Holden

    The "Change we can believe in" needs to begin right now and it needs to start with the campaign. So far they have squandered a 6 pt lead. by playing all defense all the time. But then we all know that. A few weeks ago I would have said bringing Hillary on board was nuts. Yes the Clinton's will cause problems after the elections. Problems can be dealt with. but not if you don't get to 1600 Penn Ave. first. The Republicans understand this. The campaign is all about winning. Once you win you get to govern and the two don't necessarily have to match up. Hillary would be a game changer for sure and she would be the fighter we desperately need. Not that I expect it to happen.

    Nobody has mention the total change in campaign styles lately. After June 9 OFA circled the wagons. The big rallies and soaring speeches are gone. One game changer would be to go back to the big visuals because they raise enthusiasm. During the primaries "the campaign" was really hundreds of local campaigns who were really fired up, and yes, ready to go. And go we did. Then the national campaign came in and took over. We'll vote but there is no longer a large roll for the grass roots that won the Primaries and Caucuses.

    August 20, 2008 at 11:02 pm |
  4. Alex

    Gore has already served 8 years as VP. He has outgrown that role, it'll never happen....Sen Biden has enough gravitas and Foreign Relations experience to be a game-changer.

    Besides, we need an attack dog to tear into McCain's old-world, no- economic-policy-having, simple-minded, go bomb the world with our over-stretched military, give-the-rich-more-tax-breaks, same as Bush, ... I guess you get the picture.

    August 20, 2008 at 11:00 pm |
  5. bluebird

    People are sick of Obama. He's been on 24/7 forEVER–and never says anything worth listening to.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:58 pm |
  6. lindacisme

    I am praying that Obama DOES NOT offer the VP to Hillary.
    why would a bright accomplished woman like her want to be second fiddle to such an empty suit like Obama?

    I said it in – February, March, April, May, and June (the month that the DNC leaders pushed Hillary off the stage), and I'm saying it today – Obama will NOT win.

    The Dem leaders were adament about making Obama the nominee, thinking HRC supporters would just fold into the Obama Nation.

    Dean, Pelosi, Brazile, Kennedy, Reed – now choke on your choice!

    Never Obama!

    chose the wrong horse for the race. again in

    August 20, 2008 at 10:55 pm |
  7. patrick

    Barack Hussain Obama is surrounded by the loosers. He will be the first Muslim by birth president for USA. Voters are not going to have first Muslim president for this greate land. He will loose by 12% margin in the final poles. Born Muslim is always a muslim. His DNA has not changed by converting to christanity.
    God bless this nation and all its people.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:53 pm |
  8. Archie

    David, I can't see your getting so agitated if it was McCain in trouble.
    Hmmmm, Mr. Non-Partisan? I enjoy imagining your sweaty fat fingers typing furiously to pull this one out for your fellow traveller...er...liberal...er...moderate. I hope it's too late for B.O. to take your advice and select Big Mouth Biden.

    If McCain selects Romney, there goes Michigan, Nevada and Colorado along with Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Congrats, Democrats. You screwed the pooch again! If you want to win now, you'll have to nominate Hillary as Veep or Pres. I know you'll be very happy together, (not). Happy conventioneering!

    August 20, 2008 at 10:52 pm |
  9. Wolf

    The only change the Democrats need is to put into nomination and to give the nomination to the person who got the most votes...has the tenacity....has already been vetted – can beat McCain – does not have bad abortion laws under their belt....has no Reverend Wright – Trinity, et al. They need to get Clinton into the mix! Obama cannot carry the Party – never could – but Pelosi, Brazile and company wanted him. Well – put Clinton in or lose! Simple.....Obama was as unelectable in February as he is today. The youngin's got snowed – but the rest of America will not!

    Dems lose in November can be squarely be blamed on DNC, Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Kerry, Kennedy, Edwards and the rest of the boys! See ya in four years!

    August 20, 2008 at 10:51 pm |
  10. Flor in Calif

    At what point are Democrats going to wake up and tell Howard Dean and the rest of the DNC to stop mis-managing the party as a whole.

    If Obama loses this election there should be a real review about Dean's managing abilities. I mean honestly... the man loses his own bid for president and is rewarded by being given the top job at the DNC?! talk about the Peter Principle in action.

    I blame Howard Dean for everything that has happened to Obama, Hillary and the Democratic party as of late.

    We NEED Obama to win this election but he can't do it with Biden, Richardson, or anyone else... I am sorry but Hillary is his only chance now that his numbers have dwindled... Mc Cain will be leading the polls any minute now. This is not about Hillary or Obama... It is about anyone that can get us out of this hole that Bush has let us fall into.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:50 pm |
  11. robert

    Gergin writes, "Game changer."

    Obama reads, Flip flop.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:47 pm |
  12. Greg

    Obama, himself, IS the game changer, and that's what is needed.
    Insanity means 'doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome'.
    Yet we keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes.
    The last thing we need is a long-term politician in the White House again.
    History has shown that 20+ years in politics rarely makes for a good president, except possibly the very first president we had.
    We don't need somebody that has experience with politics, we need somebody going in that doesn't do politics as usual.
    McCain will be politics as usual, no matter what's promised before the election.
    Clinton would also be politics as usual, and she'd probably be the one caught in the Oval office this time – what comes around goes around they say.

    Obama IS the game changer – and that's exactly what this country needs so we can get out of this cycle of insanity that we've been in for the past 16 years.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:47 pm |
  13. kat

    let's see, obama needs to pick someone with more governing experience because he doesn't have any. He needs someone with foreign policy experience because he doesn't have any. Hummm, sound like what WE HAVE BEEN SCREAMING FOR MONTHS! If he does not pick Hillary he is a bigger fool than I thought and trust me I am pretty convinced of that already. Hillary for VP or this vote goes to the Greens.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:46 pm |
  14. Phil

    From an Obama supporter:

    "McCain is a lying cheat who will do anything to win, even sell his soul to the devil himself!".

    Aren't you people embarrassed by comments like this? I mean, seriously?? Let's add something to the list of reasons why people don't like Obama: His Supporters.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:44 pm |
  15. BenK

    Very thoughtful piece. Obama should be arguing that there is nothing more risky than four more years of Bush policies, like McCain is proposing. Time for the gloves to come off. So, Mr. Gergen, would you consider being a counselor to Mr. Obama, if he is elected?

    August 20, 2008 at 10:44 pm |
  16. Maggie

    Mr. Gergen is 100% right. Hillary Clinton is THE ANSWER!! "SHE is the one we are waiting for!!"

    Obama gets my family of 5's vote here in southern CA IF he choses Hillary – otherwise – we are the 25% that won't "go home" – we'll find another home over at Camp McCain....

    In California we are fine with McCain – we know him and while we don't agree with him on EVERY issue – he is NOT George W....

    August 20, 2008 at 10:44 pm |
  17. John in Canada

    The only way Obama can win is with Hillary. The Republican attack machine is chewing him up and spitting him out, just like Hillary predicted. Obama is a great talker and makes lofty promises, but believe me, when politicians like him get into office and see how bad the finances are, they have to make tough, very unpopular decisions (either big tax hikes and/or big spending cuts). Many of them cave in like a house of cards. Obama has already proven that he would be like a deer in headlights. Hillary has always understood exactly what she would getting herself into and she has the courage and the strength to see things through to the end. This woman has earned the right to be president (or vice president) in spades. Only she can attract the voters that Obama needs. Only she can steer things in the right direction. Besides, she would make the blood of my ultra conservative Repulican aunt and uncle in California boil, much to my mother's delight!

    August 20, 2008 at 10:43 pm |
  18. Suzanne

    The polls will probably go back and forth from now until the actual election. I am disappointed that the Democrats aren't showing a big lead in a election year where you would think they would. And I'm not inspired by any of the VP choices. Guess we will see what happens.

    Suzanne
    Knoxville, TN

    August 20, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  19. mike, brooklyn ny

    I would like to know if all of you "NoBama" people are Democrats?? If you are why don't you guys pull a "Lieberman" and get the hell out of the party if you can't line up behind OUR nominee. I voted for Obama in the NY primary but if Hillary would have won I would have pulled the lever for her without thinking twice. You guys/girls are acting like a bunch of 6-yr olds throwing a tantrum to get your way. You are making yourselves and Hillary look foolish. She will not get the nod in 2012 because the DNC and higher ups will blame her if we lose this election.

    Nobody had anything stolen from them. Hillary and her team did not plan beyond Super Tuesday because SHE was the arrogant one and thought SHE had the nomination sewn up a year prior. Hillary NEVER stepped foot in my city or my state before her Senate run. New Yorkers put her in because we liked Bill so much.

    Just take the loss as adults vote for Obama so we can get the country back on the track. If you don't not only will you regret it for the next 4 years, your champion will lose all respect in the Democratic party. Maybe she can be the V.P. on the next Republican ticket?

    August 20, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  20. Phil

    Once again we see comments from Obama supporters who believe the ONLY reason someone wouldn't be supportive of Obama is because of his race.

    Listen up, people. That is NOT it. I'm a white guy, and while I find some of what he says pretty inspiring, I also know enough about his past to know he is NO saint, but rather a good old-fashioned, Chicago-style politician. Now I don't have a major problem with that, since you have to be able to mix it up if you're the President. My problem with Obama is his tax policies, and more signficantly, his inexperience and unwillingness to actually VOTE something other than "present".

    It's pretty clear that many Obama people will continue to believe that those not supporting Obama are racist...but you would be well served to look at the REAL reasons why some people don't support him as THAT is where your efforts need to be placed. If you REALLY think race is an issue, ask people if they'd vote for Colin Powell. I am firmly convinced he could throw his hat in the ring right now and be in the lead a week from now...including with my vote.

    Try thinking a little more deeply and with a little more maturity. Lots of people won't vote for Obama because of the things I mentioned, NOT because of his race.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  21. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    My fingers are crossed that Obama does pick Hillary as his VP. Obama is terrific. But, he needs Hillary to help fight the GOP machine. The GOP doesn't want Hillary as Obama's VP. C'mon Democrats. What does that tell you?

    August 20, 2008 at 10:39 pm |
  22. ellen, onset, ma

    David,
    you have been saying this for month's that if he's tight in the polls going into the convention then he should rethink Hillary for VP, but alas, he cares more about himself, than righting the Democratic ship before it goes under again!!!!!!!!!!!!

    August 20, 2008 at 10:38 pm |
  23. mmcc

    Maybe, just maybe, people are starting to wake up and realize that Obama:

    1) has NO experience and that no amount “yeah, buts” from him or his supporters is going to explain that away.
    2) is a 20 year follower of a raciest venom-spewing cleric.
    3) is a believer in Black Liberation Theology; a radical Marxist influenced form of separatist Christianity that’s been condemned by mainstream Christian theologians from the Pope on down.
    4) counts among his friends William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, the Marxist Weather Underground bombers of the late ‘60’s
    5) Is a liar. He lied about his position on NAFTA and he lied about his position on public campaign funding. He’s flip-flopped on Iraq, off-shore drilling, telecom immunity and government eavesdropping, abortion, capital punishment, and the list goes on and on and on……..
    6) is NOT an agent of change or a messiah but is just like most other politicians who are willing to say anything, or grease any palm (Rezco) to get themselves elected.

    The right wing doesn’t like his Marxist big government politics, the left wing feels betrayed by his flip-flopping on favored issues, and those of us in the center are feeling that we can’t trust him on anything. We Democrats have done this to ourselves. We threw our best candidates under the bus. Sadly, McCain’s all that’s left.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:36 pm |
  24. raymond, san diego, ca

    David is so right in his idea that there needs to be a game change. Obama and his arrogant staff will not see this, of course. so, the party will be taken down by them.
    Obama is a community organizer;he knows how to motivate people to come to his side. But then he doesn't have anything to show them.Biden has said he isn't the VP choice and he will be home Saturday, not in Illinois, where Obama will be campaigning with his VP. Biden is vapid anyway. He knows foreign policy and that's it.
    Now to change the game, Obama needs Hillary Clinton. he needs her to either be the lead on the ticket or the VP. Hillary is a community planner.;She knows the details . She is the expert on subject matter. With her you may get bored over discussing a topic, but you get the facts and the solutions. Let's get the Dems to choose Hillary. Call your Congressional delegation through contacting your democratic party of your state to get your congressmembers telephone number. send emails. Tell them Obama is sinking in the polls and we need a win with hillary. I will not vote Obama if Hillary is not on the ticket. I will either not vote or go NAder.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:35 pm |
  25. Irwin Graulich

    Asking David Gergen to comment on VP candidates for Obama, is like asking Putin to comment on the invasion of Georgia. Gergen has an agenda, and unlike Putin, he is certainly not very thoughtful. The average voter in America has a much better grasp of politics than Mr. Gergen. However, politicians and political commentators both seem to have similar success stories–mediocrity rises to the top! Sorry, but the truth must be told.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:34 pm |
  26. david

    how much CNN paid for this advice to obama.
    Obama didn't require ur analysis,he is doing fine.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:33 pm |
  27. TheKeatingFive

    McCain getting knee deep in the slime is really no surprise. It’s the GOP M.O. Negative campaigning may get you a bumb, but in the long run, it won’t work because McCain has no positive agenda for the country, just 4 more years of Bush. That’s why the grumpy old man has to slime. Obama tried to run a civil campaign to his credit, but when someone slimes you like McCain has, time to break out the big guns. The game changer is Obama changing his campaign strategy and going on the attack and nailing McCain to the wall. The latest McCain-Ralph Reed campaign ad is a good start. Hillary as VP would be a three ring circus I think. Too risky. Biden is perfect.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:32 pm |
  28. CH in NOVA

    An Obama and Clinton or Obama and Gore alliance would almost perfect certainity result in a winning team in November! This is the game-changer Obama needs now to end his downward spiral that would likely end in a very embarrassing lost in Novemebr.

    Foremost, he should not listen to any advisor (elitist-types) and also swallow his thought of being comfortable–it is about succeedingby winning the election so one can affect the change he envisions! No one will fault him for wanting to win, but the key is not to appear desparate when he introduces Clinton or Gore as his running mate in November. It is American as apple pie to do all one can do to win the Presidential election as we have seen others who came before him that have become the Commander-in-Chief.

    Candidate Obama, you become the president and the VP will follow and that is what Clinton will do, but importantly now she will help with almost perfect certainity boost your chances to win in November. need to be perfect in selecting Clinton as a running mate

    August 20, 2008 at 10:32 pm |
  29. Sean from Orlando

    If Obama does not put Clinton on his ticket then I am voting for McCain.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:28 pm |
  30. Dr. Chika Williams

    I am a Nigerian,I hate polities ,but this between Obama and Mcain has attracted my attention,I prefer to skip diner than Situation room.This election is not only for the Americans but the world,we are all eyes and ears.M John is an old man,secondly that you were a war prisoner is not a credit for presidency.
    American's should get ready for another attack like 9/11 if McCain is elected,because he is going to wake sleeping loins,all in the name to show his supremancy.
    Electing Obama,is all that USA need for now.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:27 pm |
  31. Ron the Libertarian

    There is simply not enough liberals in the country to elect BO. All this talk of GORE is desperate people looking for anything to get him elected.

    GORE didn't even win his home state in 2000 why do you think he would help now? IF every single liberal voted for BO/GORE it still won't be enough to win the election.

    GORE has too many skeletons in his closet to want to be 2th banana again. It seems that a lot of liberals are running around scared to death of their own party and it's members. It's starting to show and the convention just might be a death knell for this election.

    If Democrats can't field a better option that what's been mention they don't deserve to win anything. Which is a shame because the Republicans are just as bad.

    There is a lot of infighting in the democrat party that we're not seeing but the results are visible. The liberals are fighting tooth and nail to hang on to power and BO is their last great hope to remain relevant. He's proving to not be enough in most areas that count. Simply not enough of anything but showmanship. That's starting to show as well.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:27 pm |
  32. Calandra Ferguson

    I'm so tired of reporters being "more than reporters" just report the news-factual and objectively–without TOTALLY NOTHING BUT OPINION.

    Where have all the REAL journalist gone?

    August 20, 2008 at 10:20 pm |
  33. Justin

    McCain said they should reinstate the draft today in a town hall meeting. That is it.

    August 20, 2008 at 10:18 pm |
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