Waging a campaign–Two thoughts

by Michael O. Allen on August 24, 2008

Both Frank Rich and Bob Herbert had sound advice for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama on the Op-ed pages of the New York Times this weekend.

Echoing the theme of an essay I’m working on and still hoping to post, Herbert weighed in on Saturday with advice that Obama hew close to economic themes:

I’m all for thoughtful, reasonable, even cerebral candidates. John Wayne has had way too much influence on our politics. (“Bring ’em on.” “Bomb, bomb Iran.”) But if ever there was a presidential campaign that cried out for a populist’s passion, this is it.

The last eight years have been calamitous. We’re struggling with two wars, one of which we never should have started. The economy has tanked big time. The housing market has collapsed and foreclosures have skyrocketed.

Motorists are reeling from high gasoline prices. The financial-services sector is teetering like a skyscraper in an earthquake. Robust budget surpluses have morphed into deficits stretching to the horizon and beyond. And cash-strapped, debt-ridden working families are viewing the future with high anxiety, if not outright fear.

Senator Obama should be invoking F.D.R., who wanted to make the U.S. “a country in which no one is left out.” And Harry Truman, who had no qualms about getting in the face of the political opposition. (“I never gave anybody hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.”) And Robert Kennedy, who wanted the government to get behind a massive effort to rebuild the country and create millions of new jobs.

Senator Obama has been talking about the economy lately, but his approach has been tepid and his remedies vague. The electorate wants more. A so-so appearance in Martinsville, Va., this week warmed up considerably when Senator Obama began talking about jobs and the nation’s infrastructure.

“We need a policy to create jobs here in America,” he said. Suddenly, the crowd was paying closer attention.

That’s what Obama needs to be talking about, Herbert says.

Frank Rich points out that McCain is a man whose time has passed. That Obama needs to work the “Change we can believe in” theme that vanquished the vaunted Clinton machine.

“Change We Can Believe In” was brilliantly calculated for a Democratic familial brawl where every candidate was promising nearly identical change from George Bush. It branded Obama as the sole contender with the un-Beltway biography, credibility and political talent to link the promise of change to the nation’s onrushing generational turnover in all its cultural (and, yes, racial) manifestations. McCain should be a far easier mark than Clinton if Obama retools his act.

What we have learned this summer is this: McCain’s trigger-happy temperament and reactionary policies offer worse than no change. He is an unstable bridge back not just to Bush policies but to an increasingly distant 20th-century America that is still fighting Red China in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in the cold war. As the country tries to navigate the fast-moving changes of the 21st century, McCain would put America on hold.

After reminding Obama that the media is not his friend, that the press would highlight and amplify his presumed faults while glossing over and giving a pass to McCain on real defects, Rich offered the following advice:

What should Obama do now? As premature panic floods through certain liberal precincts, there’s no shortage of advice: more meat to his economic plan, more passion in his stump delivery, less defensiveness in response to attacks and, as is now happening, sharper darts at a McCain lifestyle so extravagant that we are only beginning to learn where all the beer bullion is buried.

But Obama is never going to be a John Edwards-style populist barnburner. (Edwards wasn’t persuasive either, by the way.) Nor will wonkish laundry lists of policy details work any better for him than they did for Al Gore or Hillary Clinton. Obama has those details to spare, in any case, while McCain, who didn’t even include an education policy on his Web site during primary season, is still winging it. As David Leonhardt observes in his New York Times Magazine cover article on “Obamanomics” today, Obama’s real problem is not a lack of detail but his inability to sell policy with “an effective story.”

That story is there to be told, but it has to be a story that is more about America and the future and less about Obama and his past. After all these months, most Americans, for better or worse, know who Obama is. So much so that he seems to have fought off the relentless right-wing onslaught to demonize him as an elitist alien. Asked in last week’sNew York Times/CBS News poll if each candidate shares their values, registered voters gave Obama and McCain an identical 63 percent. Asked if each candidate “cares about the needs and problems of people like yourself,” Obama beat McCain by 37 to 23 percent. Is the candidate “someone you can relate to”? Obama: 55 percent, McCain: 41. Even before McCain told Politico that he relies on the help to count up the houses he owns, he was the candidate seen as the out-of-step elitist.

So while Obama can continue to try to reassure resistant Clinton loyalists in Appalachia that he’s not a bogeyman from Madrassaland, he must also move on to the bigger picture for everyone else. He must rekindle the “fierce urgency of now” — but not, as he did in the primaries, merely to evoke uplifting echoes of the civil-rights struggle or the need for withdrawal from Iraq.

With his choice of vice president in place and the party convention starting this week, the real campaign is about to begin. How will we finish? Obama has to craft a message for the times, a message that will convince America to turn away from the chimera that is McCain to the real solutions that Obama offers.

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