Barack Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war helped drive him to victory in the Democratic primaries. But it's the economy that could put him in the White House.
The dramatic collapse of such august financial institutions as Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch is reshaping more than Wall Street, it's recasting the landscape of the presidential election at a crucial time.
After fumbling over how to respond to Sarah Palin mania, the Democratic nominee suddenly has a prime opportunity to regain momentum now that economic turmoil is front and center. But only if he can capitalize on it, which is anything but certain.
"The last few weeks have been a whirlwind around these conventions, and the media's been focused quite honestly on trivial issues. But I think the events this last week have clearly cemented the economy as the singular issue,'' said Steve Schale, who is leading Barack Obama's campaign in Florida. "The candidate at the end of the day that convinces the voters that they are the most credible on how to get the economy growing is going to be the candidate that wins."
Democrats traditionally have an advantage on bread and butter economic issues, but it only underscores a fundamental weakness in Obama's candidacy that he has struggled to maintain a significant lead over McCain on the question of whom voters trust to fix the country's financial mess.
For all the paid staffers and field offices Obama now claims, how many undecided voters actually know yet that Obama's tax plan would cut middle class Americans' taxes more than McCain's, according to every nonpartisan analysis? Or that Obama is the only candidate supporting a national catastrophic fund to ease Florida's property insurance crisis?
On Wednesday the Obama campaign began airing a two-minute TV ad — an unusually long one — in Tampa Bay and other battleground areas with the candidate speaking directly into the camera:
"Six hundred thousand Americans have lost their jobs since January. Paychecks are flat and home values are falling. It's hard to pay for gas and groceries, and if you put it on a credit card they've probably raised your rates. You're paying more than ever for health insurance that covers less and less,'' Obama says. "This isn't just a string of bad luck. The truth is that while you've been living up to your responsibilities, Washington has not. That's why we need change. Real change."
Blah, blah, blah. Change. blah, blah, blah. Change.
The opening is there for Obama, but only if he stops channeling Adlai Stevenson and starts hitting people in the gut. The guy may give a great speech, but he has trouble connecting with people.
"One of the problems that Obama's had is his TV commercials. They just aren't memorable and don't seem to have much staying power,'' said David Johnson, former executive director of the Florida Republican Party. "A lot of times the undecided voters aren't making their decision based on cerebral arguments. It comes from the heart — 'I trust you' — and right now voters are still shopping for whom they trust to fix this."
McCain this week seemed to do his part to make Obama's case for him. One top economic adviser weirdly suggested that McCain had invented the BlackBerry, another said neither McCain nor any other presidential candidate was equipped to run a major corporation. Then there was the Republican nominee himself declaring on the day that Lehman Bros. capsized and the stock market tanked that the economy is "fundamentally strong."
The Arizona senator later backpedaled to say he was referring to the strength of the American worker. That explanation may have been more convincing if he hadn't said the same thing about the strength of the economy repeatedly this year.
"The fundamentals of America's economy are strong," McCain said back in April, the same month he also said "there's been great progress economically" under the Bush administration.
That McCain remains so competitive in this terrible climate for Republicans is testament to his strength and the goodwill he has earned with voters. But his path to the White House always looked easier if national security, and not the economy, was the driving issue of the campaign.
Polls are pointing to momentum shifting back toward Obama after he spent the last few weeks in Palin's shadow. A Time/CNN poll released Wednesday showed a tie race in all-important Florida.
The Republican nominee now is aggressively campaigning as a passionate advocate of more Wall Street regulation. Never mind that he has spent much of his career pushing for less regulation and that he named as his campaign co-chairman former Sen. Phil Gramm, who led the charge in 1999 to end Depression-era regulations of the financial industry.
Next week, McCain and Obama meet for the first of three nationally televised debates, and nobody can understate the importance of those debates and their potential to shake up the race once again.
This week's turmoil assures that the economy will be central to the race.
"It's going to be breaking through big time from here on out,'' said Florida CFO Alex Sink, who supports Obama. "With this financial crisis we're dealing with I know that Floridians are concerned, and they're going to turn their attention back to looking at the policies and the issues and the type of leader we need for the future."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.
|John McCain, 'Foundation'
"You, the American workers, are the best in the world. But your economic security has been put at risk by the greed of Wall Street. That's unacceptable. My opponent's only solutions are talk and taxes. I'll reform Wall Street and fix Washington. I've taken on tougher guys than this before."
|TV ads released Wednesday directly addressing the turmoil||Barack Obama, 'Plan for Change'
"Reform our tax system to give a $1,000 tax break to the middle class instead of showering more on oil companies and corporations that outsource our jobs. End the 'anything goes' culture on Wall Street with real regulation that protects your investments and pensions.''
|On the housing crisis, he has proposed letting some delinquent mortgage-holders refinance at more affordable terms and wants a commission to examine the way loose credit practices triggered the current crisis. He would make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and trim the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. He also seeks to lower Medicare premiums and ban Internet and cell phone taxes. He emphasizes spending cuts by eliminating "pork-barrel" projects.||Details of their long-term economic plans||He would create a $10-billion fund to help some homeowners avoid foreclosure. He proposes a $75-billion tax rebate to stimulate the economy. He wants a $500 tax credit that would reimburse workers for payroll taxes and would roll back the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest taxpayers. He also would increase the capital gains tax for individuals, but eliminate it for startup businesses.|