Obama’s Opening

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.”

For Obama, the greatest vulnerability he faces in the debate over Iraq is his position on the surge, which has long been supremely squirrelly. (From a refusal to acknowledge that it was working to a bogus claim that he always believed that it would do so to his statement recently to Bill O’Reilly that it has “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”) It would certainly be powerful if Obama admitted that he was wrong initially—coupled with an explicit contrast with McCain and Bush and their stubborn refusal to consider new facts and concede error in light of them. But such an admission would be dicey, especially when some strategists see McCain’s surge advocacy as a declining asset. “The public is giving McCain some credit for it, but they still want to get the fuck out of Iraq, and with him, that’s no sure thing,” says a GOP operative. “The surge is a book, but it’s a book we’ve read. Obama needs to turn the page.”

For McCain, by contrast, the two prime areas of weakness are his judgment and temperament—both of which Obama singled out for criticism at the convention. “What Obama needs to make clear in the debate is McCain has no larger strategic vision, that he responds viscerally to every immediate situation with the same level of anxiety,” says a Democratic strategist. “Georgia-Russia is only the most recent example. He said that was the first serious crisis since the Cold War. Really? What happened to 9/11? The threat of Muslim extremism? He usually says that is the most significant issue since World War II! So? Which is it? The guy can’t distinguish between the moderately serious (Georgia is such a case, just a classic big-power landgrab), the important, and the world-changing. He’s just a hotheaded fighter pilot: a nicer but still pointed way should be found for Obama to say that, right in his face.”

A posture that confrontational would be out of character for the hopemonger. But what he can do is find a way to expose the troubling centrality of military engagement to McCain’s foreign-policy vision. On countless occasions, he has informed audiences with calm certitude that more combat is in America’s future. By pointing these remarks out, as well as his various Cold War–ish pronouncements—“Today, we are all Georgians”—Obama can paint a picture of recklessness without getting personal. “Obama has been pretty clear that he believes that bellicosity isn’t a substitute for a foreign policy,” Axelrod says. “And McCain’s impulse is that. In that respect, he may be worse than Bush. His public temperament as it relates to foreign policy is a real concern, and one we will not shy away from raising.”

The question is how McCain would react to such baiting. But at least one person who knows him well thinks it’s possible that he could be induced into a debate-defining—maybe even election-defining—gaffe. “On the willingness to go to war, I don’t know that McCain would even argue the point with Obama,” this person says. “Challenging him in that way could be a win-win for Obama. The country’s not in a mood for another war, and John sees it as a weakness to say anything otherwise.”

There are, to be sure, even darker places that Obama could go: raising McCain’s many recent senior moments, from his confusion of the Sunnis and the Shiites to his saying that Pakistan borders Iraq to his apparent befuddlement last week over the identity of Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (which occasioned an AP story with this priceless lead: “John McCain either doesn’t want to meet Spain’s prime minister anytime soon or isn’t quite sure who he is”). But that course, too, carries risks. “You don’t want to make McCain a figure of sympathy,” says one longtime strategist. “All Obama has do is break even in this debate. A draw is a victory for him here.”

And no doubt that’s true—though I, for one, am praying that Obama and his people aren’t approaching the debate with such complacency. The signal foible of the Obama campaign thus far has been excessive caution. But even after Obama’s bounceback, the race remains too close to call. The same newly minted toughness he displayed on the economy last week would serve him well in the debate on foreign policy. With just six weeks to go, there is no longer any margin for missed opportunities—and McCain’s foreign policy is a golden one, a soft target waiting to be bombed.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Obama’s Opening