Halperin: How the Powell Endorsement Boosts Obama

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Brendan Smialowski / Meet The Press / Reuters

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks during a taping of NBC's Meet the Presson Oct. 19

In one of the most symbolically important moments of the general election, former Secretary of State Colin Powell announced today that he is endorsing Barack Obama for President. Making his decision public on NBC News' Meet the Press, the longtime fixture in Republican Administrations effectively reinforced the sense of momentum Obama has been building, declaring the Senator from Illinois to be a "transformational figure." Said Powell: "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."

Sources say Obama courted Powell's support for well over a year, with private discussions that have largely involved policy consultations, but also some explicit pleas for support. Powell's neutrality up until now had worried some Republicans, as a possible nod for Obama had been rumored and discussed for months. Previously whenever he was asked about Obama, Powell had nothing but kind words, but before his appearance on Meet the Press, he always stopped short of a full endorsement.

The endorsement is not only symbolic but, in terms of timing, it is of great tactical importance. Powell is a brand unto himself in American politics, and clearly transcends the media's tendency to hype endorsements over their actual importance to voters. However, the announcement's indisputable benefit is that the former Secretary of State and general is sure to block any chance John McCain has of winning the next two or three days of news coverage, as the media swoons over the implications of the choice. It is simple political math: McCain has 15 days to close a substantial gap, and he will now lose at least one-fifth of his total remaining time.

Powell's decision brings other clear benefits as well. He is so trusted for his judgment on national security (even in the wake of his role in the current Iraq war) that his confidence in Obama to become Commander in Chief will resonate with many élites and voters. The Democrats' ability to play the Powell card for the next two weeks makes it much harder — even if there is an unexpected international crisis — for Republicans to suggest that Obama isn't qualified to protect the country. Powell reinforced Obama's qualifications on Meet the Press: "Senator Obama has demonstrated the kind of calm, patient, intellectual, steady approach to problem-solving that I think we need in this country."

If some voters still see Obama as a nebulous, unknown figure with questionable associations and liberal tendencies that makes them wary of voting for an African American, Powell's decision may ease their minds. In some ways his image is the perfect complement to Obama's. Unlike the newly arrived Obama, Powell is an establishment figure with over a decade of experience in the national spotlight regarding military and international affairs, first as a career Army man, then in a variety of national security roles, culminating in his service as Secretary of State.

When Powell considered his own run for President in 1995, his political advisers found that there was an extraordinarily wide and deep well of support for the retired general as a political figure. In fact, by some standards, before Obama, Powell was the most successful African-American politician of the past two decades, though he never actually sought elective office. Even after being tied to the Bush Administration and its widely disliked foreign policy decisions, Powell has maintained extraordinary popularity, with nearly three-quarters of Americans continuing to view him favorably, in part because he is perceived as a nonpartisan figure, almost above politics.

Finally, Powell long ago cast his lot with the Republican Party, even though he is known to have disagreements with the GOP on some social issues. He has been a powerful speaker at party events, and one of the truly powerful symbols the party has had to deploy. His crossover endorsement is Obama's biggest yet from a Republican, and it fuels many of the Democrat's regular themes: Obama is the future and McCain the past; Obama — and his party — can be trusted on national security, Bush mishandled the Iraq conflict; and Republicans (and independents) should be comfortable supporting the man from Illinois.

Powell will not become a full-throated partisan on Obama's behalf, but the two are now joined symbolically. It is most similar to Senator Edward Kennedy's endorsement of Obama over Hillary Clinton in February, which garnered extraordinary news coverage at a critical moment and broke the spirit of the opposition. Like Kennedy, Powell is a larger-than-life figure who commands a wide following. Powell says he will not campaign actively for Obama, but he does not need to. His words on Sunday were more than enough.