Yesterday, former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Senator Barack Obama in his presidential bid. Speculation of the endorsement percolated on the Internet for days prior to the official announcement. In a prepared statement, Powell's said that he was upset with the "tone" of McCain's campaign, specifically mentioning its reference to Ayers. Similarly, during the Democratic primaries, many of the people who endorsed Obama over Clinton condemned her "tone." I assume the Obama campaign prepares these statements. They are great political narratives, because they allow others to say that Obama's opponent is, basically, nasty.
Powell's endorsement also comes while some voters debate Obama's recent statement to Joe the Plumber that he wanted to "spread the wealth around." Conservatives have officially gone into "red scare" mode, while Ayers continues to receive attention as well. Recent polls show Obama with a commanding, yet shrinking lead, perhaps due to Joe and taxes. Powell's endorsement could potentially move the public discourse away from these matters. Obama's campaign employed a similar strategy during the Democratic primaries, when it often announced endorsements and superdelegate support for Obama during soft moments for the candidate (including Wright and various primary defeats).
Although it remains unclear whether Powell's endorsement will influence voters, it does present some interesting points of analysis. The endorsement cannot harm Obama politically, but for some progressives, it could raises questions about where Obama will govern as president (center, right, or left).
Powell's Endorsement: The Upside
The endorsement has a lot of potential upside. Powell has even higher approval ratings than McCain and Obama. He is well regarded by persons across the political spectrum. He has great foreign policy and military experience. Because he is a Republican who served in the Bush administration, his endorsement looks like a huge slam to McCain. Powell's endorsement might help comfort moderate voters who doubt that Obama possesses sufficient experience to serve as president. Because of the potential upside, the endorsement serves a lot of strategic purposes.
Powell's Endorsement: The Downside
Although Powell comes with a lot of positives, I think that if people actually probed all of the issues it presents, they could come up with some downsides too. Powell's endorsement -- or Obama's acceptance of Powell's endorsement -- could undermine Obama's credibility regarding his opposition to the war. During the primaries, Obama said that Clinton "lacked judgment" because she voted for the war. He said the same about McCain during the presidential debates. But Powell actually sold the war to a skeptical public and in the process, mislead Americans and the international community about Saddam Hussein's danger to the United States. Powell was in the center of the Bush administration -- a regime that Democrats have long wanted to change.
Obama's antiwar message excited many left-leaning and solidly left Democrats, who thought that Clinton was either too hawkish or a dove who voted for the war due to political expedience. But since the conclusion of the primaries, Obama has picked Biden as a running mate and has humbly accepted Powell's endorsement (presumably after negotiating it). Biden voted for the war, and Powell gave credibility to Bush's demand for authorization to use force against Iraq.
This will not harm Obama politically, because Obama is not Powell, and most people are not focusing on the war at the moment. Also, outside of leftwing blogs, I imagine this aspect of Powell's endorsement will receive very little attention. Nevertheless, it still contradicts Obama's very powerful antiwar/anti-Bush narrative and gives another layer of complexity to Obama as a political figure.
A Final Thought: Powell and Gay Rights
Powell, as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played a very large -- if not the largest -- role in defeating Bill Clinton's plan to lift the ban on discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military. Powell said that the military could not maintain troop cohesion and order with gay soldiers, and he singlehandedly rebuked activists who analogized the military's homophobia to racism. The debacle over the anti-gay policy emboldened conservatives to attack Clinton almost neurotically, and it probably made Clinton even more committed to centrist positions than he already was. Because the military question came so early in his presidency and caused such a tremendous amount of outrage, Clinton accepted the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise, which perpetuates the silencing of gays and lesbians. Although some recent journalistic accounts suggest that Powell has softened on this issue over time, many gays and lesbians who engaged in advocacy on the military issue might view his endorsement less enthusiastically than other Democrats. Obama, however, does not intend to use Powell's endorsement to secure gay and lesbian and other liberal voters; instead, it is designed to attract uncommitted and undecided moderate-to-conservative voters.