Worsening Economy Gives Obama and Hillary a Chance to Copy Edwards' Populist Ideas

When Goldman Sachs announces recession and the Federal Reserve chairman on the same day promises ready-to-go interest rate cuts, you can take it to the bank: the recession is official. The 2008 campaign's refreshing spirit -- the chorus of "change, change, change" -- is joined by a more traditional theme. "Jobs, jobs, jobs." Suddenly, everyone wants to sound like a Keynesian liberal, ready to prime the pump with federal spending.

My advice to Barack Obama: look through the John Edwards file -- he got there first -- and borrow freely from his sound ideas for economic stimulus. Then double or triple Edwards' numbers to show your sincerity. Do this fast. Hillary Clinton is already out of the box with a plan the New York Times describes as the first from any Democratic candidates.

Wrong. John Edwards was out front with aggressive anti-recession proposals in early December. Act now, he said, don't wait for the official announcement. First, Congress should put up at least $25 billion to stimulate job creation and be ready to spend another $75 billion as things get worse. Spend the money on "clean energy" infrastructure, the housing crisis, reform of unemployment insurance, aid programs to help families get through hard times and other wounds. Get the money out to the folks who will spend it right now and to public works projects that can create new jobs quickly.

Nothing fancy in the Edwards package, just the old-fashioned, meat-and-potato politics that used to make Democrats the party of working people. In the scale of what's happening to the economy, I think his proposals are too modest. Bill Gross, the insightful managing director of PIMCO, the major bond-investment house, has called for virtually doubling the federal deficit in order pump hundreds of billions into new economic activity. When bond holders are more alarmed about the economy than political leaders, you know something is backwards in American politics.

Edwards, alas, probably restrained the size of his stimulus package to convince the media gatekeepers he is not wacko and thus win some coverage for his forward thinking. No such luck. Edwards has his own shortcomings, but he has been victimized by the shallow political culture that empties meaning from presidential campaigns. The press early on consigned him to the "populist" stereotype and largely ignored the serious content of his agenda.

This is the curse that leads to enervating, brain-dead presidential cycles. Substance bores political reporters. Most of them do not understand economics or even know much about how government actually works. Given their ignorance, they prefer to play the role of theater critics and imagine that readers are desperate to hear their highly subjective and utterly unreliable reviews of the sideshow.

Actually, it's worse than that, as we witnessed again in New Hampshire and Iowa. Reporters read the polls -- slavishly rely on them -- then go out and gather connect-the-dots tidbits that appear to confirm the poll results. When polls are wrong, reporters are wrong. And shameless in their denials of culpability.

If reporters were to give up the arrogant role of reviewers, they would have to do real work -- the unfashionable task of reporting on what candidates actually say. Then the diligent would subject the substance, not style, to critical analysis and reactions from many quarters. This drudgery would seem humbling to the "boys on the bus." Most of them, anyway, are incompetent to do such work.

Barack Obama has a soaring message and charismatic authenticity, but he is vulnerable to mindless media judgments for almost an opposite reason. Despite his compelling rhetoric and character, Obama has left too much unsaid (or maybe we just haven't heard what he did say). If Obama loses contests here or there, I expect another stereotype will be assigned by the reviewers to explain the results -- Senator Lite. A nice enough guy but weak on substance, not ready for prime time.

From what I know about the man, that is a cruel distortion of his depth and temperament, but he does need to fill in some blanks. The recession gives Obama a ripe opportunity to protect himself from media labeling, without changing character. First, produce the concrete policy proposals demanded by competitive campaign rituals. Then speak more loftily and ambitiously about the American economy and what Obama envisions for the more distant future. What might it look like then years hence? How does he hope to get there? These are reasonable questions he has not yet addressed, but can answer in broad strokes. Or maybe he already has addressed them and the media thought it sounded boring.

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