Recently, as he’s faced sustained media skepticism for the first time, Barack Obama has been more than just defensive: He’s been besieged and slightly peevish at times. But on Tuesday, he accomplished the near-impossible by making the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory remarks seem like just a prelude to a big, conversation-starting speech on race. He also achieved something else his skittish supporters had worried he might not again: He won the day’s news cycle. Tuesday’s speech was Obama’s attempt to reclaim not only the high ground, but also the initiative.
The question now is this: How does he keep it up? Here are six answers.
1. Stick to big themes on race. Obama cannot completely defuse the reaction to Wright, but he can diffuse it by sticking to his revised big-picture narrative. Referring explicitly to his mother from Kansas and his father from Kenya, and to himself as “somebody who has little pieces of America all in me,” Obama is now casting his mixed ancestry as a metaphor for nationhood, signaling that he and the country are ready to transcend racism — even as he recasts offensive utterances from Wright, and his own grandmother, as part of America’s fabric. Now that’s nifty — and it’s the plane at which Obama must keep the debate on race, not that of precisely which Wright sermons he attended.
2. Stay front and center. Obama’s campaign got off track when Austin Goolsbee and Samantha Power were making headlines. If Michelle Obama can downshift as she has recently, everyone else should get the message: In this campaign, it’s the candidate, stupid.
3. Use the kitchen sink as a shield. Clinton has gone after Obama for so many trivial offenses that she has developed a cry-wolf problem just as Obama has actually had to answer serious questions about his past. If there’s anything else hiding in Obama’s closet, now is the time to let it out and immediately discount it.
4. Go after Hillary on transparency and disclosure. Obama can attack Clinton while staying positive by keeping after her to release her tax returns, which she has already agreed to make public. (How long does it take to put together returns she has already filed, anyway?) He should press relentlessly to get the list of donors to the Clinton Foundation. And he should nudge the press to examine Hillary’s daily schedule records from her time as First Lady, which the National Archives has announced it will release. Maybe reporters can finally figure out who’s right about her 1996 trip to Bosnia: Hillary, who called it a harrowing peace-making expedition, or the comedian Sinbad, who accompanied Clinton and now says his biggest worry was wondering where he was going to eat.
5. Leverage the chaos on Wall Street. Obama needs to tackle economic issues more squarely. He has to show more substance. And he could sorely use a couple of new talking points. The recent craziness in the market gives him the chance to do all these things. Sure, Hillary’s got a plan to deal with the subprime mess; like many of her policy proposals, it’s heavy on top-down federal interventions, like freezing interest rates for five years. Obama is more of an opportunity-society guy. Now is his chance to detail not only he would help insolvent mortgage lenders and borrowers, but how he would regulate investment banks and credit-card issuers to protect consumers and small investors from future bubbles.
6. Game expectations for Pennsylvania, then try like hell to keep it close. The next great showdown state could hardly be worse for Obama. Pennsylvania’s got ethnic Catholics and white woodsmen galore, and the Philadelphia party machinery is at least partly controlled by ardent Hillary supporter Governor Ed Rendell. So the Obama campaign has already started putting the word out that losing by ten points would constitute a victory. They should add that Hillary needs to gain 30 delegates from Pennsylvania to stay credible. And then they should remember that even though Pennsylvania has a closed primary, Independents and Republicans have until the 24th to reregister as Democrats. —Peter Keating