Retired Gen. Colin Powell's support for Barack Obama could be that rarity in presidential politics—an endorsement that actually matters.
Powell, former secretary of state for President George W. Bush and a Republican, told NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, "I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason I'll be voting for Sen. Barack Obama."
Powell added: "I think that Senator Obama brings a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of ideas to the table. I think we need a generational change, and I think Senator Obama has captured the feelings of the young people of America and is reaching out in a more diverse, inclusive way across our society."
Political endorsements generally don't make much difference because few people in public life can transfer allegiance from themselves to someone else, and voters generally don't march in lockstep because some prominent figure tells them what to do. Obama won the endorsement of Massachusetts Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry during the Massachusetts Democratic primary and of Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and still lost both contests to Hillary Clinton earlier this year.
But Powell could be a different story, for four reasons:
- Powell can validate Obama on the issue of patriotism. The former general and Vietnam veteran has spent his adult life putting "America first"—a phrase used by Republican candidate John McCain in describing himself—in a variety of public-service roles. By backing Obama, Powell can reassure voters that Obama is truly patriotic. Powell also addressed a specific charge that McCain has been making—in effect, questioning Obama's commitment to his country because of the Democratic nominee's sporadic association with former anti-Vietnam War radical William Ayers on charitable and educational projects in Chicago. Powell dismissed the Ayers charges as trivial and a diversion from the country's real problems.
- Powell, who was a four-star Army general, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, can give credibility to Obama on the crucial question of readiness to be commander in chief. "Senator Obama has demonstrated the kind of calm, patient, intellectual, steady approach to problem-solving that I think we need in this country," Powell said.
- Powell can reinforce Obama's argument that McCain and the Republicans are getting too negative, are spending too much time attacking him, and are avoiding more substantive issues of concern to everyday Americans, such as the economy and healthcare. Powell made exactly these points in his Meet the Press interview.
- The endorsement is making big news and diverting media attention from the messages that GOP candidate McCain is trying to promote. Trailing in the polls with only two weeks left before Election Day, losing much of the media megaphone even for a few days is a serious setback for McCain.
Powell suffered his own credibility problem as secretary of state when he argued publicly that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons were never found. But polls also suggest that most Americans still view him favorably and consider him a nonpartisan figure. As one of the most prominent and esteemed African-Americans, Powell could help ease the concerns of some white voters about Obama's race if Powell's background reminds them that African-American leaders can promote traditional American values just as well as whites can.