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Barack’s Cool Pop

He spent months trying to find the right economic voice. And his steady, understated, optimistic populism arrived just in time.


Illustration by André Carrilho  

In presidential politics, nothing tells you more about a candidate’s strategy—and his campaign’s perception of his standing in the race—than his schedule. So it spoke volumes when, on the morning after the second debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee flew straight from Nashville to a rally in Indianapolis. As Senator Evan Bayh reminded the 21,000 Obamaphiles assembled on a drizzly weekday at the state fairgrounds, no Democrat has carried Indiana since 1964. George W. Bush trounced John Kerry there by a whopping 21 points. And yet most recent statewide polls show Obama running neck and neck with McCain. The Republican National Committee is pumping cash into Hoosier country to stave off an upset.

Obama took the stage and began his speech soberly, declaring that we’re now in the midst of a “full-blown global financial crisis.” But there was no containing the confidence clearly brimming within the hopemonger. Leaning in to the podium, he expanded on riffs he’d deployed the night before against McCain. Then he snapped off a couplet that you’ll likely soon be hearing ad nauseam: “Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked the electorate whether you were better off than you were four years ago. At the pace things are going right now, you’re going to have to ask whether you’re better off than you were four weeks ago!”

The implosion of the financial system has been to Obama’s incalculable political benefit—that much is beyond dispute. With an astonishing 59 percent of Americans (according to a poll last week by CNN/Opinion Research) now believing that a full-on depression is either very or somewhat likely, the election has shifted on its axis to an all-economy, all-the-time affair. This in itself would favor any Democrat with a pulse, let alone one running against McCain, whose performance during the crisis has redefined the term abysmal. Creepy as it sounds, you could argue that for Obama, the multi-market meltdown was the luckiest break imaginable.

If Obama wins, there will be those, no doubt, who put the victory down to just that: blind shithouse luck. Who will argue that without the financial crisis, McCain would have cleaned his clock. But the truth is that, as Don Rumsfeld might say, stuff happens in campaigns. The question is how the candidates react, who rises to the challenge and capitalizes on the chaos. That Obama turned the crisis to his advantage reflected his skills, his temperament, and the fact that he finally found both his footing and his voice on matters economic when he needed them most.

It’s about freaking time, you might say, and you’d be right. No small part of Obama’s difficulties in slaying Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination contest had to do with his feebleness on economics. Not that his policies (many of them) weren’t sensible and solid. But he presented no overarching theory of the case, no potent narrative that made sense of the tidal changes rippling through the economy and framed his prescriptions in that context as sensible, indeed indispensable. Nor did he connect on an emotional level with a great many working-class voters: All too often he came across as an empathy-free zone. In both of these respects, Obama seemed to have learned nothing from the example of Bill Clinton in 1992, from whose playbook he should have been furiously cribbing—or so some of us argued.

Others pushed Obama to embrace a full-throated, John Edwardsy brand of populism. But every time he tried to play that game—notably around the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries, when he suddenly started trashing every free-trade deal in sight—it proved ineffective, mainly because he plainly didn’t believe a word he was saying. Hard-edged, hot-eyed populism, moreover, would have been politically risky for Obama in the general election anyway. “It’s a dangerous stance for any African-American candidate,” says Joe Trippi, the former top strategist to Edwards and Howard Dean. “You open yourself up to being caricatured as the angry black guy.”

But from the late spring into the summer, Obama began to fashion a softer, calmer, more discriminating form of populism better suited to his demeanor and his intellectual convictions. He didn’t attack Wall Street wholesale, but called for its reregulation. He didn’t assail big business wantonly, but went after industries whose behavior he found egregious (oil, insurance) and loudly opposed his rival’s plans for a massive cut in corporate tax rates. He trained his fire on lobbyists and other influence peddlers. And he found a way of weaving these ideas and broader populist themes convincingly into his rhetoric—as in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, when Obama said, “We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether … the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job—an economy that honors the dignity of work.”


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