At the start of Barack Obama's presidential bid, the candidate was all about change—the kind we can "believe in." In recent weeks, the campaign posters have been edited to tout a more practical variety of change—the kind "we need." By last week, the Obama campaign was all about any change—that is, changing the subject. After suffering a couple of weeks of post-Palin depression caused by a big bounce in GOP polls, not to mention sudden Republican unity and enthusiasm, the Democrats saw the Wall Street meltdown as an opportunity to get their candidate back on terra firma, the economy.
Trouble is, the ground had already shifted. While Obama once enjoyed a double-digit lead on the question of whether he's more equipped to handle the economy, that edge slipped to single digits after the GOP convention. Why? Because Team McCain had morphed into the Mavericks, ready to trounce the good old boys—and drill, baby, drill—all the while reforming big, bad Washington. Experience was out; outsiders were in. John McCain and Sarah Palin had tapped into a potent mistrust of government and caught up in the polls, tying the presidential race.
Then Lehman Brothers went belly up, and big government bailed out the mega-insurer AIG to prevent a financial Armageddon. Overnight, government had become the white knight. Obama, who has always called for more oversight of financial institutions, looked more confident. And McCain—a strong deregulator—found himself, er, adjusting his position, calling for strong regulation to curb the big, bad, greedy fellows on Wall Street. And that was a day after he had called the "fundamentals" of the economy strong. Talk about being off message.
Suddenly, it's a new campaign, and that is a good thing.
Now the voters get to decide who is safer—not as commander in chief but as the steward of the economy. And it's no longer about Palin's culture wars or Alaska's Troopergate or lipstick on a pig. It's about putting together a coherent economic message. That is, explaining "change"—which both candidates now proclaim as their mantra—as more than a process. It has to be a plan.
This should be a gift for Obama. After all, McCain needs to rail against Republican incompetency, both on economic oversight and policy, not to mention recalibrating his definition of what constitutes "excessive" government intervention. It's an impossible policy turn but a doable tactic: Make sure we believe that the real problem is the corrupt system and its corrupt pols and that you will clean up both. Problem solved.
Clarity counts. It's facile, but it could work—especially if Obama doesn't start connecting soon. It's not that he doesn't have an economic plan; it's just that voters can't identify what it is or what it would mean to them. So, it's no surprise that a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 51 percent of the public believes that Obama will raise taxes, which is not true for most Americans. (In fact, Obama promises to hand a tax cut to all but the wealthiest Americans.) But McCain has pounded the talking point enough to make it seem true, while Obama has preferred to mostly say that McCain is out of touch and can't use the Internet. All of which is interesting but doesn't affect the wallet. Tax increases do.
In elections, clarity counts. "Obama is thoughtful," Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, tells me. "But frankly, he's not coming across as someone willing to fight for what you believe in." In fact, he's the mirror image of McCain: all vision, little fight. While McCain is short on the substance (aside from his clear record of fighting earmarks, he has little to show in terms of efforts to clean up Wall Street), he's now all about fighting for you. "Obama has to start stirring people's blood," adds Panetta. "And he needs to beat the drum about what he would do, day in and day out." If McCain has now defined change as reform, Obama needs to define change as a way to help voters.
Truth is, neither candidate is an economic guru. And no one is going to tell you the obvious post-election reality: that all of this federal spending on bailouts and eco-nomic stimulus is going to put a real crimp in their campaign promises. Those are the decisions a president will have to make. Getting there comes first. And that means convincing voters that change, after all, still winds up in your pocketbook.