For the Next 10 Weeks, Obama Should Hammer McCain on the Economy

After being pummeled for weeks by John McCain, and losing some of his slender lead in the polls, the Obama campaign may finally be showing signs of life.

Barack Obama was always a long shot to win the White House. It's no secret that some portion of the electorate will never vote for him because of his color. But he has made the odds even longer by running a campaign that, since the primaries, has seemed directionless, uninspired and addicted to the empty calories of generalities.

And the candidate himself has seemed flat. No fire. No passion.

I'm all for thoughtful, reasonable, even cerebral candidates. John Wayne has had way too much influence on our politics. ("Bring 'em on." "Bomb, bomb Iran.") But if ever there was a presidential campaign that cried out for a populist's passion, this is it.

The last eight years have been calamitous. We're struggling with two wars, one of which we never should have started. The economy has tanked big time. The housing market has collapsed and foreclosures have skyrocketed.

Motorists are reeling from high gasoline prices. The financial-services sector is teetering like a skyscraper in an earthquake. Robust budget surpluses have morphed into deficits stretching to the horizon and beyond. And cash-strapped, debt-ridden working families are viewing the future with high anxiety, if not outright fear.

Senator Obama should be invoking F.D.R., who wanted to make the U.S. "a country in which no one is left out." And Harry Truman, who had no qualms about getting in the face of the political opposition. ("I never gave anybody hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.") And Robert Kennedy, who wanted the government to get behind a massive effort to rebuild the country and create millions of new jobs.

Senator Obama has been talking about the economy lately, but his approach has been tepid and his remedies vague. The electorate wants more. A so-so appearance in Martinsville, Va., this week warmed up considerably when Senator Obama began talking about jobs and the nation's infrastructure.

"We need a policy to create jobs here in America," he said. Suddenly, the crowd was paying closer attention.

Feeding off the heightened energy, Mr. Obama talked of the need "to invest in people and our infrastructure right here in the U.S.A."

He went on: "At a time when Iraq has a $79 billion surplus -- they have parked it in banks in New York City -- it doesn't make too much sense for us to be still spending U.S. taxpayer dollars, $10 billion monthly, rebuilding Baghdad.

"We should use some of that money to rebuild Virginia, building roads and laying broadband lines and putting people back to work."

There was a burst of applause and the crowd was completely with the candidate. It was the kind of connection that Senator Obama will have to make repeatedly, across the country, if he expects to be taking the oath of office in Washington in January.

At that moment in Martinsville, the senator was speaking plainly and his listeners had no trouble relating. "If we create a world-class infrastructure," Mr. Obama said, "we create jobs now, but we also create the competitive platform for the future."

A new sense of excitement has been building around the Obama campaign, fueled by anticipation about his running mate, the upcoming convention and John McCain's inability to master the inventory of homes that he and his wife Cindy own.

But that's summertime excitement. It's not the sort of thing that will carry a candidate across the finish line. Senator Obama needs a first-rate, crackling-with-excitement populist message, which means a laser-like focus on the economy and jobs.

And he needs to show a lot more fire.

Mr. Obama likes to say he's skinny but tough. But with all due respect, he hasn't yet demonstrated the degree of toughness needed to prevail in a presidential campaign. There is nothing genteel about these contests.

From Watergate to the Swift Boat madness, we've seen how the struggle for the ultimate power of the presidency can degenerate to the rankest kind of ruthlessness and ugliness, usually at the expense of the Democrat.

Joe Biden is a good model to follow here. A few months ago, after being asked on MSNBC about attacks on Senator Obama that were being unleashed by Senators McCain and Joe Lieberman, Mr. Biden said:

"I refuse to sit back like we did in 2000 and 2004. This administration is the worst administration in American foreign policy in modern history -- maybe ever. ... Every single thing they've touched has been a near-disaster."

A populist message and a willingness to take the fight to his opponent is Barack Obama's ticket to the White House.

He's got 10 weeks to show if he's got the right stuff.

© 2008 The New York Times

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AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by its writers are their own.

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