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Obama’s Opening

The first debate is on McCain’s favored ground: foreign affairs—which presents his opponent with a large opportunity.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

With Wall Street in flames, the credit markets quaking, and the financial system in utter disarray, last week was pretty bad for pretty much everyone—except Barack Obama. It was a good week for the Democratic nominee, first and foremost, because he was no longer talking defensively about the array of pseudo-issues, from sex education for kindergartners to lipstick-festooned pigs, that had consumed the campaign in the wake of the Republican convention. Because the economy was front and center, and the economy is the biggest club that Obama has in his bag. Because he did a creditable job of using that club to pummel his opponent. And, not least, because John McCain did an even better job of pummeling himself.

The McCain train wreck on the economy was both predictable and predicted. But who ever thought his incoherence would be quite this rank? The lurch from “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” to “we are in a total crisis.” The lunge from a career-long stance of “I’m always for less regulation” to calling for a new “proactive” institution to intervene in the financial sector. The shift from opposing the AIG bailout to supporting it—in the space of 24 hours! And then, of course, there was the assessment of McCain’s voluble economic surrogate, Carly Fiorina, that “I don’t think John McCain could run a major corporation,” a judgment so accurate, impolitic, and damning that it earned her one of the great blind quotes (offered by a top McCain adviser to CNN.com) of this election cycle: “Carly will now disappear.”

No wonder then that by the end of the week, Obama had retaken a slight lead over McCain in the national polls conducted as the financial crisis hit. The Republican bounce had dissipated. The Sarah Palin bubble seemed to be deflating. And the horse race had reverted more or less to where it was before the two parties’ national conventions.

As I said, a good week for Obama—but a week now come and gone. The financial crisis is almost certainly not over, and its fallout will be with us for years to come. But the story line of the campaign is about to pivot to foreign policy and national security. Why? Because those are the topics on the agenda at the first Obama-McCain debate this coming Friday at Ole Miss. A lucky break for McCain, I hear you saying, a chance to move the debate to ground that favors him. And you may be right. Or maybe, just maybe, it will prove to be the moment when Obama begins to put this thing away.

Whatever happens, Obama will be in no position to complain, for the impending alteration in the substantive terrain was of his own making. Last November, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates decreed that the first of this year’s three nationally televised mano-a-manos—which are about as likely to set new records for viewership as McCain is to utter the phrase “my friends” at least once at all of them—would be on domestic policy. But when the Obama and McCain high commands hammered out the details this summer, the Obama campaign plumped for switching the topics of the first and third debates. “I think the McCain people were kinda surprised we wanted that,” Obama chief strategist David Axelrod tells me.

Given McCain’s perceived advantage on national security, the most obvious interpretation of the Obama team’s motives was a desire to get past their toughest challenge first, play for a tie, and then move on to progressively firmer soil. But from what I can glean from people in Obama’s orbit, this was not their thinking. “Obama is really confident on foreign policy, doesn’t see it as a weakness at all,” says one friend of his. “He wants this debate, and thinks he can win it big.”

Obama’s confidence owes much to his experience in the Democratic nomination contest, when following his instincts, even when they seemed dubious to some of his advisers, proved to be politically advantageous. Maybe the clearest example of this was his declaration of his willingness to meet with the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, for which he was pilloried by Hillary Clinton and her arch-Establishment allies—but which struck many voters as suggesting pragmatism and fresh thinking rather than heresy. The deeper source of Obama’s self-assurance, however, is his belief in his prescience on the Iraq War, which propelled him to victory over Clinton, and which he and his advisers still believe is his strongest card against McCain.

But Obama’s people also understand that, in the debate, he needs to embed the Iraq argument into a broader indictment of McCain on matters of war and peace. The starting point for that indictment is that the Republican nominee is, despite his attempts to run away from George W. Bush as fast his 72-year-old legs will carry him, a carbon copy of the president. And this goes beyond the question of Iraq per se. In Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention, he assailed the Bush-McCain misadventure in Baghdad as a dangerous distraction from the War on Terror, one that has let that war in Afghanistan and Pakistan metastasize. And indeed, by focusing on those two countries in the debate, he has the opportunity to slam his opponent in the solar plexus with a point that he made vividly in Denver: “McCain likes to say he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of hell—but he won’t even follow him to the cave where he lives.”


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