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.”
Obama’s embrace of soft populism was subtle, incremental, at times nearly imperceptible. But it set him up perfectly for the financial crisis lurking just around the corner. “Unlike traditional politicians, he didn’t simply do an overnight leftward correction,” says an old Bill Clinton hand. “He didn’t switch ‘Change we can believe in’ to ‘Reformer with results’ or ‘Let’s take a match to Wall Street.’ He didn’t bark out his stage directions—‘Message: I care.’ He didn’t take Lamar Alexander’s red-and-black flannel shirt out of the closet. Gradually, like he was slowly twisting a rheostat, he got to where he needed to be. And when the markets fell, he didn’t have to run after them and make a basket catch. It seemed inevitable and obvious when they collapsed into his lap.”
That collapse, along with McCain’s long history of support for deregulation of the financial industry, had a number of significant effects. To start, it handed Obama a ready-made economic narrative—or, rather, it added a powerful extension to the catchall argument he was already making against McCain as a clone of Bush. “It’s a dead-simple narrative,” says Robert Reich, the former Labor secretary who is now an informal Obama adviser. “It says, ‘This disaster is the result of eight years of failed policies, especially deregulation, and McCain was in favor of most of them.’ That’s it. ‘Look where we were. Look where we are. And who’s responsible?’ ”
The crisis atmosphere also created a setting in which Obama’s intellect, self-possession, and unflappability would be seen by voters as such, and not as aloofness or arrogance or bloodlessness, as they sometimes have been in other circumstances. McCain, it’s worth noting, was more stridently populist in tone in his initial reaction to the crisis, with his declamations against Wall Street greed. But Obama’s soft-populist posture—with no flashes of anger but rather expressions of indignation—played better with the electorate. “People are angry and scared,” says an Obama confidant. “What they want is someone cool and steady and smart who understands what’s going on, and that’s what they’ve seen in Barack. But what they’ve seen in McCain is hot and erratic and maybe not all that smart.”
The soft-populist approach has served Obama effectively, too, on topics besides the financial crisis. You could see it in action at the last debate when he took on the question of health care: starting with a firm declaration that coverage “should be a right for every American,” proceeding through a professorial disquisition on how his plan would work, and ending with a shot at “insurance companies that are cheating their customers.” You could see it as well in Indianapolis, when Obama clinically debunked McCain’s claims about his desire to raise taxes willy-nilly and then called for a show of hands of those in the audience earning less than $250,000 a year (who would thus be unaffected by his tax hikes). “That seems to be almost everyone,” he said with a chuckle.
But Obama seems to realize that, in order to close the sale, he needs to take his soft populism one step further, past the us-versus-them-ism inherent in the creed. In Indianapolis, he sought to infuse his speech with a unifying optimism—so much so that it sounded a bit like a closing argument in the making. “We will all need to sacrifice, and we will all need to pull our weight because now more than ever, we are all in this together,” Obama said. “What this crisis has taught us is that at the end of the day, there is no real separation between Main Street and Wall Street. There is only the road we’re traveling on as Americans, and we will rise or fall on that journey as one nation, as one people.”
Sunny, hopeful, optimistic populism isn’t as paradoxical as it might seem. It was the touchstone, in different ways, of both Clinton and Ronald Reagan. And there is reason to think it could carry Obama to a victory even more convincing than either of them achieved in the elections that put them in the Oval Office. In battleground state after battleground state Obama can point to polls that show him pulling away. The prospect of a Democratic landslide, which seemed remote if not impossible just a few weeks ago, now seems more than plausible.
I know, I know, don’t get carried away. A month is a lifetime in politics. The already ferocious Republican assault on Obama on matters of character, patriotism, and all-purpose otherness is bound to get more mind-bogglingly, stomach-turningly brutal. The old verity that economics trumps culture when the economy is bad is bound to be sorely tested. Obama may have finally stolen that page from the Clinton economic blueprint, but he will never have Clinton’s cultural inoculation—his Bubbahood—against certain kinds of attacks to fall back on. On the other hand, the specter of another Great Depression may keep the electorate focused on what really matters. Certainly it did back in 1932. “When times are good, people say they want someone like them to be president, but when times are bad, they want someone who can solve the problems, no matter how unlike them he is,” says the Obama confidant. “FDR was hardly a fucking man of the people, you know?”