Democrats remain flummoxed and liberal pundits fret: what’s the matter with Barack Obama? He is supposed to be winning. By a lot. Well, a Democrat is supposed to be winning, but this particular one is having his share of problems. Charles Krauthammer on Friday explained:
I think the sheen from earlier this year, where he was seen as a streaking meteor and he was the candidate of hope–I think it was Brit Hume who said he started the year by selling hope, but now he’s selling audacity. And I think there’s a sourness setting in. And you see it even in mainstream press when you get a Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post” write a brilliant article in which he says said that Obama started out as the presumptive Democratic nominee, and now he’s the “presumptuous” Democratic nominee. So there is a sort of a turn in the zeitgeist. Where the energy issue is hitting is in congress. The Democrats have made a huge mistake here, the stubbornness of Pelosi and Reid in not allowing a vote. The Democrats know it is a losing issue. It’s manna from heaven because Republicans were running uphill on all the economic issues, and they are clearly on the side of public opinion on this.
It is really three factors at play: Obama has gotten worse, John McCain’s campaign has gotten more aggressive in pointing out that Obama has gotten worse and Obama is no longer talking about the issues which were underpinning that huge advantage Democrats were thought to enjoy.
It’s the last point which has liberal supporters stumped. What happened to the laser-like focus on the economy? What happened to the non-stop message that John McCain is George W. Bush’s clone? These were lost in the audacity festival in Berlin and the aftermath of the trip (e.g. the soldier snub gaffe). But even before that, between the securing the nomination and the overseas trip, the major campaign storylines have been: Obama’s flip-flops, Wesley Clark slurring McCain, Hillary Clinton voters still upset, Obama’s repositioning (kind of) on Iraq, the success of the surge, and the faux seal and the arrogance meme.
Where was there anything positive for Obama or any moment in which he was leading the policy discussion? In any other year the candidate who ceded the debate so dramatically would be losing. It’s a measure of how tough a year it is for Republicans that Obama is still effectively tied.
So why not more focus by Obama on the economy? Well, first he thought he had to fix his commander-in-chief problem. That may have been a giant waste of time and simply distracted from the central problem Obama faces on domestic policy. Obama has a significant challenge there which I suspect he has to fix, and fix quickly. Most of his economic plan is a collection of tax increases for the “rich” and corporations and estates. Throw in some protectionism and it’s not a very credible message during a weak economy. So he can rail about the faltering economy and call it the Bush-McCain depression but until he has a more attractive, growth-oriented approach it may be hard to seize the high ground.
And when you’re not driving the message, others will. That’s in large part why the stories become all about “process” and his personal deficiencies. That polling lead he is supposed to have, I suspect, won’t appear until he can diffuse and shut down the myriad of harmful storylines now circulating. And to do that, he’ll need a clear and believable economic message. Come to think of it, McCain could use one too.