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Baratunde Thurston: Here's how Obama can win

Remember that John Kerry was transformed from a war hero into a wind-surfing latte drinker

Why hasn't Barack Obama won already? A lot of people are asking this question and every time a new poll shows a tight race between Obama and John McCain, the question gets louder and more public. Elections, be damned. Many of us in the US and abroad have already picked the winner. Why doesn't Obama get on with the thrashing? After all, we need to prepare for the next season of American Idol!

The new sense of frustration or stalled progress around a man whose vision has galvanised millions is a result of multiple factors including Obama's own unlikely success, the media's need to promote conflict, pressure from a vocal left, John McCain's negative campaign, and an influx of millions of Americans who are just beginning to pay attention to the election.

It's first worth acknowledging that any frustration around Obama's perceived lack of momentum only exists because he has defied many political expectations already. Here is a man who came from nowhere to defeat the biggest name in Democratic politics of the last 20 years: the Clintons. He's survived blistering attacks against his church and used it as an opportunity to raise the bar on the discussion of race. Most notably, he sank a three-pointer in front of US troops in Kuwait on the first try. The net result is that he seemed invincible and inevitable.

Add to this the collapsing housing market, an over-extended military, record energy prices and a destroyed Republican brand. Clearly, Obama should have been sworn in by now, right?

But with the bar set so high, the only inevitability was that people would try to bring him down, starting with the media for whom the Democratic primary was the most exciting political event in a generation. Obama vs Clinton was an epic battle between generations, races, sexes. And it all came to an end in early June, taking with it ratings and drama that are hard to top.

June through August is a newsless tundra across which scores of media outlets must generate content to keep their advertisers happy and their audiences seemingly informed. In this environment, questions dominate the reporting far more than answers. Media outlets, especially cable news, go with what they know: conflict.

Remember the primaries. According to the news analysis of the time, blacks and latinos were on the brink of a race war, and all Democratic women would abandon the party to vote for an anti-choice Republican candidate, John McCain, if Hillary failed to win.

Rather than focus on the mathematical impossibility of Hillary Clinton's victory, they noticed with shock: "Look, the black man is not winning over the racist white vote in West Virginia!" They asked then, as now: "Why can't Barack Obama close the deal?"

As much as the media is criticised for loving Obama, they have a much longer-standing love affair with McCain. He was the "straight talker" from 2000, and he's a former prisoner of war, which means you cannot, under any circumstances, criticise him.

All of this can't be pinned on the media, however. The same high bar of expectations led many progressive activists to be disappointed by Obama's decisions. The most notable case was Obama's vote on the revised Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

This bill allowed many of the Bush administration's constitutional transgressions involving illegal wiretapping to go unpunished in the near term, while improving some civil liberties protections. Progressive activists and bloggers attacked Obama for being willing to compromise on an issue they'd invested years of work in.

And then there's John McCain and the attacks from the Right.Negative campaigning works. Remember that John Kerry was transformed from a war hero into a flip-flopping, wind-surfing, latte drinker who lied about his military record. The right wing successfully defeated Congressman Max Cleland – who lost three limbs in Vietnam – by painting him as unpatriotic.

So, despite having sewn up his nomination months ago, John McCain did not choose to define himself or his agenda for the country. Instead he whined like a child about how much attention Obama was getting, played the victim of the "liberal" media and threw a veritable hissy fit when Obama went abroad, running ads disparaging his "celebrity" status.

Now imagine you're one of millions of American voters who hasn't paid much attention up until this point. Here's what you see. On the one hand, you have an easily defined, traditional candidate. Old white guy. War hero. Long-time senator. Maverick. On the other hand, you have a much younger, black man from Hawaii? Community organiser? Muslim?

The country has had decades, possibly centuries, to get to know John McCain, whereas Barack Obama is still unknown to a great many. That's the bad news. The good news is that there are months until the actual election and this case of summer frustration does not have to become reality. In the next few months, those who want the election of Barack Obama have to do three thing to affect the public perception.

First, define Obama in a way that's understandable by those who haven't gotten his life story engraved on to their iPods. Second, redefine McCain. Tell the story of how he's no longer the straight-talking "maverick" many thought they knew. Third, go on the offensive and respond swiftly to attacks.

All the close polling and summer hand-wringing should serve to remind us that this choice, which seems obvious to some of us, is not nearly so obvious for others. It's "obvious" that Bush should not have become president in 2000 nor remained so in 2004, but this knowledge didn't make it so. What will work for Obama is what worked for him in the primaries. He wasn't the obvious choice then, but he convinced millions to support him, and we're ready to fight alongside him now.

Baratunde Thurston is a comedian and a blogger for Jack and Jill Politics