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Radnor Geopolitical Report

Kenova, West Virginia, October 2008



Strategic geopolitical intelligence for decision-makers





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Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.








by Ken Feltman

In America, anybody can become president. That's one of the risks you take.

- Adlai E. Stevenson

The arduous trial-by-campaign that we impose upon our presidential candidates seems unnecessarily long when contrasted with the length of campaigns in other countries. The American system seems almost cruel - surely for the candidates and probably for the besieged voters, too. But it works.

The strengths and weaknesses of the candidates are revealed eventually in a way that could never happen in a shorter time. This election's interminable campaign has revealed critical things about the candidates that we would not have learned without the punishment inflicted on the finalists, Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain.

This year's election has produced more research than ever before. The research goes far beyond voting preferences and reveals one characteristic about each candidate that we did not appreciate when the campaigns started.

At heart, John McCain is still a fighter pilot. He is still veering and zooming, evading and attacking, making quick decisions, then zooming off to try another route of attack. McCain has gone through life like a fighter pilot, closing in and delivering his weapons upon the target, then flying off to rearm and attack again. Quick decisions, made in split seconds, nerves of steel, determination, courage and derring-do are the stock-in-trade of warriors who ride rockets into battle. People like this tend to be a bit reckless when not under attack, whether in the air or on the ground.

The marriage counselor

Barack Obama is a facilitator, adept at getting people to appreciate a problem and work out how they might solve it. He would be a great teacher, a good preacher, an excellent marriage counselor. But he does not seem to be able to make up his own mind. Dozens of times in the Illinois Senate and now the U.S. Senate, he has been on the floor but has not cast a vote - or has voted present. He does not like to be pinned down. He hedges, he avoids, he rephrases the question - and still has trouble settling on a position unless his position is poll-tested. His stock-in-trade is playing the role of whatever he is after. His is the heart of a poet called to the rough and tumble of politics and he is not quite comfortable.

These appraisals are condensed from the comments of thousands of voters. McCain supporters usually disagree with this appraisal of their candidate but agree with the appraisal of Obama, and vice versa.

"Don't short America"

As the Dow sunk below 9,000, a trader at the New York Stock Exchange summed up his view: "Don't short America. We'll be back with a roar. We're still the most important economy in the world. The way everyone else is suffering shows that they can't go forward if we go backward."

He may be right. Like it or not, the world needs the U.S. Predictions that China could destroy our economy by cashing in U.S. government securities are not likely to come true. Where would China sell it's products after it destroyed it's leading customer's economy?

A few weeks ago, many were worried about the reemergence of Russia as a malevolent power. Arguably, Russia today is closer to bankruptcy than the U.S. What a difference $45 a barrel makes for an extraction-based economy.

Recently, voters' appraisals of the candidates have crystallized. McCain's selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate and his erratic behavior in suspending his campaign to work on the economic crisis have hurt him. Obama's failure to be more specific continues to bother people who are still trying to figure out what he is all about. As voters make their decisions, their instinctive feelings about the risks involved in choosing one candidate over the other become more important. Many voters have decided that McCain is the riskier choice. Other voters say the same thing differently: Obama is the safer choice.

Are these voters telling us that in these trying times they do not want a fighter pilot careening around the White House? Are they saying that they will accept an indecisive marriage counselor instead? Let's look at the American people to see if we can find an answer.

The focus groups tell us who the American people are and what they believe and want. One conclusion: The wishes of "average Americans" are far apart from both the political and the economic leaders of the United States. When voters in a democracy and their leaders are this far apart, political change almost always follows in the next election. We have been looking for change. We have been told almost daily that this election is about change. But in the end, this year may be about something else.

Although it is hard to believe, the voters seem to be telling us that they cannot figure out the best way to change things. Despite all the talk by the candidates about change, the voters are not convinced that either Obama or McCain represents the change that the voters want. In other words, they do not buy Obama's argument that he represents change while McCain represents more of the same. With voters and politicians so far apart on basic issues, we will have a "change" election - but perhaps the change election will be postponed until 2012 or 2016. But the change election will come and the voters will "throw the bum out." If so, this election may determine who that bum will be.

A candidate who runs on change must spell out the change. Obama has not satisfied voters looking for specifics. This is why we kept hearing that Obama was having difficulty "closing the sale." Actually, something different may have been going on: Centrists voters across the country were looking for reasons to vote for Obama or McCain. Perhaps they were driven by racism. Perhaps they had an uneasy feeling that Obama's lack of details meant that he had not figured out the details - or that he wanted to conceal the details until he won. The voters tended to use words such as "aloof" and even "arrogant" to describe Obama. The centrist voters kept looking for ways to measure the candidates. Obama gave them little that would help them measure him. So those voters found something else.

Change versus risk

A few months ago, many voters were willing to consider McCain despite all the baggage he carried. But McCain did not project a steady, reliable image. He made and unmade decisions. Then McCain started talking about the risk voters would take if they voted for Obama.

In a brilliant move, Obama turned it around and said, wait a minute, McCain is the risky one. That was the moment: Voters agreed that McCain is a risk. They had readily embraced McCain as a candidate of change in September, even after Obama had preached change, change, change for months. Now the voters went for a tie-breaker and selected risk instead of change as the decisive issue.

Risk is an elimination issue: When a candidate is too risky, the other candidate gets the vote even if that other candidate is undefined.

The polls moved in Obama's direction. That could be the wave that will convert a close election into a landslide.

Voters are concerned that Obama will raise taxes and spend money on new social welfare programs. But they are in agreement with his healthcare reform plan - often because they are against McCain's plan (or what Obama tells them about McCain's plan).

Voters are concerned that they do not know enough about Obama to make an intelligent choice - but they have decided that McCain is too risky. That seems to be enough to put them in the Obama column.

The voters also are concentrating on issues that unite Americans even as the candidates try to find a silver bullet - a decisive issue that will divide the electorate in their favor.

Optimism, not risk, is the common ground.

All across the country, strong and resourceful people - newcomers as well as those whose families have been here for 100, 200 or even 300 years - say many of the same things: They are embarrassed over Abu Ghraib, waterboarding and Guantanamo. They are angry and getting angrier over up-and-down gasoline prices and angrier still with the failure of Washington to control the greed of Wall Street.

A surprising number of Americans express concern that the financial meltdown means that the U.S. has let other countries down and caused people in other countries to face anxiety and loss. This attitude seems rooted in an old American belief. We hold ourselves to a higher standard and expect our country to demonstrate leadership in human rights, energy, healthcare, environmental protection and most other areas.

Americans want their leaders to uphold that higher standard. McCain's one last hope may be that voters in the middle believe that he would uphold that higher standard. Despite all of Obama's grand and poetic words, a significant number of voters are not sure that Obama understands America the way they do. But that may not matter now.

McCain is riskier.

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