Obama Turns His Message Of Change to The Economy

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

GREENWOOD, S.C., Jan. 22 -- Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has spent much of the past year laying out a vision for voters weary of partisan rancor and political double talk. Now, as he faces an electorate suddenly worried about plummeting 401(k) accounts and vanishing jobs, he argues that the issues are linked.

As the nation grapples with the threat of recession, Obama said, its leaders need to come together to address economic problems with a forthright candor that he argues is lacking in his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"In this time of economic anxiety and uncertainty, what this country needs most is a president who says what he means and means what he says, a president who won't just do what's right when the politics are easy but when the politics are hard, a president who's not just in it to win it but in it for you," he told several hundred voters gathered at Furman University in Greenville on Tuesday.

He gave a more impassioned version later in the day at Lander University in Greenwood. "The only way we're going to change it is if all of us stand up and say we are tired of this same old, same old . . . that it's time for a new chapter," he said.

All the presidential campaigns are struggling to offer solutions and show concern for those affected by the bad economic news. But the shift in focus presents a particular challenge for Obama, whose campaign has been based more on his appeals to national reconciliation and post-ideological pragmatism than on the traditional, bread-and-butter Democratic platform offered by Clinton.

Obama has plenty of specific proposals, including those on health care and tax reform. But he argues that the country needs a "new kind of politics" while Clinton appeals to those Democrats who believe the problem of the past seven years has been that the GOP has been in power and made a mess of things.

Obama's vision has resonated more with higher-income voters, while exit polls in Nevada and New Hampshire showed Clinton doing better with lower-income voters and those worried about the economy. The exception was in Iowa, where Obama held his own with those voters.

Clinton's seeming advantage on the economic front dismays Obama supporters who dispute that she would be any better equipped to handle a downturn than Obama, and who argue that some Clinton policies from the 1990s, such as NAFTA, probably contributed to some of the nation's current woes.

"Most people think that she's part of what has been the Democratic machine and has had more experience and so is better able to handle this, but I personally don't believe that," said Judy Vick, a Greenville resident who was at the Furman event and who supports Obama. "He's smart and could handle it as well as anyone."

Obama would appear to be well-positioned to connect with anxious voters. He is the least well-off of the Democratic candidates (he likes to remind voters that he paid off his college loans only a few years ago), and his second job out of college was as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side. But he tends to invoke that part of his r¿sum¿ as an example of the power of grass-roots action instead of as part of a populist charge against economic unfairness. And he is not one for the demonstrative hugs that Bill Clinton used to such effect in the early 1990s.

Obama can give a more visceral rallying cry to aggrieved working-class voters, but he tends to wield it only with audiences that will not find it immoderate. Speaking to the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas before the Nevada caucuses, he cut loose, invoking C¿sar Ch¿vez and declaring, "It is time to tell the fat cats that their influence . . . doesn't speak louder than our collective voice."

More often, his approach in recent weeks has been to lace his usual stump speech with new economic references, decrying CEOs who "make more in 10 minutes than some workers make in 10 months" and laid-off workers who have to "compete with teenagers for $7 an hour jobs at the local Wal-Mart." He lists the proposals he has offered since early in the campaign -- tax breaks for struggling seniors, tax credits for college students -- as well as his latest plan for recharging the economy, including tax rebates and expanded unemployment benefits.

But his proposals can seem pedestrian surrounded by the more uplifting portions of his speech. In Atlanta on Sunday at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s former church, Obama tried to bridge the gap by talking about the need for more "moral empathy." On Tuesday, he tried to link the broad and specific with criticisms of some of Clinton's moves on the economy -- her switch to include a rebate proposal after he mentioned it, her vote for a 2001 bankruptcy overhaul plan that she now says was too tilted toward the credit industry, and her recent call for a "timeout" on trade deals in the face of criticism of NAFTA.

"This is exactly the kind of politics we can't afford right now," Obama said. "Not when the stakes are this high. Not when the economy is this fragile. We can't afford a president whose positions change with the politics of the moment; we need a president who knows that being right on day one means getting it right from Day One."

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