Perception is reality. We’ve heard it all before and it is a truism that is repeatedly proved valid time and time again. Personally, I believe it should be carved in stone as one of the 10 Political Commandments. The jist of the axiom is that how people perceive a campaign or candidate creates its own reality in the political dimension. There is, admittedly, a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in this. If a candidate sets out to create a particular image for themselves through their clothing, demeanor, advertising, message and campaign material they take responsibility for shaping how the media and public perceives them. They define themselves and constantly reinforce their image through their actions and tactics. This is particularly crucial for political neophytes as it can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. This dichotomy lies in the fact that they are essentially a blank slate. With limited or no political resumes, they can either define themselves or be defined by the media and their opponents. This was the situation Barrack Obama faced when announcing his run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Beyond the Washington Beltway and outside the Chicago El, the extent of Obama’s exposure to the nation was limited to his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech. After watching it I immediately told my wife not only would he give Republicans serious problems in the future, he would one day be a legitimate contender for the presidency. Little did I know it would be four short years later. On the strength of that one speech, Obama established himself as a deeply thoughtful, highly articulate and emotionally evocative speaker. His oratory bona fides firmly established, the next question would be his image. Stylistically he is cool; refined and fashionable, without being flashy; both verbally and in his wardrobe selections. Seeking a balance between perception and privacy, Obama initially appeared with his wife and children just enough to establish a sense of family without turning them into clichéd props. The final issue was his relatively meager political resume. Confronting a field that included opponents with decades of experience on the national stage, many of them fellow senators as well as a former Ambassador to the United Nations and the female half of the most legendary political husband and wife team of the last half century, Barack masterfully executed a devastating bit of political jujitsu. Experience was not the standard by which candidates should be judged, he insisted. Centuries of combined political and governmental experience had led us marching headlong into Iraq. The same experience created an economy that increasingly benefited the rich while threatening to push millions out of that most cherished group of Americans; the Middle Class. Exploding budget deficits, a declining dollar, the impending fiscal Armageddon of Social Security and Medicare’s collapse were all attributable to experience Obama lamented. No, it is judgment, not experience that is the benchmark. While Hillary insisted the president must have the experience to be ready to govern on day one, Obama parried that all the experience in the world was for naught if it resulted in bad judgments and poor decisions. Thus was his image set, the campaign engaged and victory ultimately won. Having dispelled the myth of the indestructible Clinton political machine, Obama is now a giant slayer as well as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. He is now a seasoned veteran of a grueling and agonizingly long nationwide campaign. His image is sleek, insightful, energetic and visionary. The question is - can he maintain this image through the summer into the Denver convention and on to November 4th? Will he succeed in his attempt to retain his perception as a virtuous sage extolling the wisdom of his zen mantra of change? Or will the Republicans draw him into the mud and expose him as a mere politician as he becomes increasingly mired in the traditional muck that accompanies presidential campaigns? In light of the bounce he received in a number of polls following his image-enhancing world tour last week, it appears as if the Republicans have some significant work ahead of them. Juxtaposed to the sleekly cool and refined image of Obama, John McCain is increasingly perceived as cantankerous and disconnected. Though gaffes and misstatements are common after months on the campaign trail, hundreds of town hall meetings and scripted events, McCain’s increasingly frequent factual faux pas when combined with his age create the impression of someone teased by dementia. His remarks that American troops could well be stationed in Iraq for decades to come, in line with our on-going deployments in Japan and Germany, belies the mood of the American public. Though he seeks to win partisan points with the conservative base of the Republican Party, his past attempts to link Obama with Jimmy Carter and his decrying the media bias clearly demonstrated in the coverage of Obama's world tour last week come across as desperate and clutching for straws. While the public is besieged by dire economic indicators on a daily basis, McCain continues to press national security and the war on terror as the bedrock of his campaign. Clearly the McCain camp is in need of some straight talk regarding image management and message control. In addition to the perception of the candidates, one must also bear in mind the perception of the environment in which the campaign is conducted. If national security issues dominate the landscape, this provides an advantage to the Republicans. On the other hand, if domestic issues such as the economy and health care are foremost in the electorate’s consciousness, the advantage transfers to the Democrats. Compounding this advantage is the lag time between economic perceptions and realities. In the fall of 1992, the country perceived itself as being in the grip of a recession. Hence, James Carville’s famous quote, “It’s the economy, stupid.” However, when the fall economic statistics came out the following quarter in the winter of 1993, it was clear the country had actually moved out of recession and was in recovery at the time of the general election. As comforting as it may have been, the information came too late for George H. Bush to fend off Clinton’s successful challenge for the presidency. Fast forward to 2008. With oil and gas prices hovering in low earth orbit, bankruptcies on the rise, home foreclosures devastating the housing market and banks and financial institutions failing, the electorate’s attention is squarely focused on economic issues at home. In order for the Republicans and McCain to gain any respite from the political pressure that accompanies the grim daily headlines, the country must move into recovery during this quarter. Should this fail to happen and gas prices remain near or above the $4 threshold into late October, the perception that we are threatened by, if not already in the icy grip of a recession will crush whatever meager hopes the Republicans have. Remember, perception is reality and the reality at this point is grim to say the least. Can you see the real me, faithful readers? Can you? Stay tuned for further updates as reality shifts and developments warrant.