Economy Becomes New Proving Ground For McCain, Obama

Sen. John McCain discusses the economy during a visit to the Asociación Borinqueña de Florida Central in Orlando.
Sen. John McCain discusses the economy during a visit to the Asociación Borinqueña de Florida Central in Orlando. (By Gerardo Mora -- Getty Images)
By Dan Balz and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yesterday's meltdown on Wall Street brought the economy roaring back to the center of the presidential campaign, and the question for the final seven weeks of the general-election campaign is whether Barack Obama or John McCain can convince voters that he is capable of leading the country out of the morass.

McCain faces the bigger challenge. As the Republican nominee, he must answer for what has happened on President Bush's watch and offer a plausible explanation for why his conservative administration would be genuinely different. Obama already is attacking him as ill-equipped to deal with the financial crisis and has aggressively moved to tie a future McCain administration to a lobbyist-dominated Washington culture.

Obama's challenge is different. He begins with the reality that Democrats are seen as the party that is more trusted to deal with the economy. Despite that, he has struggled through much of the year to develop a compelling economic message. Where he remains suspect is on the strength of his leadership and his ability to connect with working- and middle-class voters.

McCain is playing on those qualms in his counterattacks.

Even before yesterday's bad news, the economy was the top issue on voters' minds. But over the past two weeks, other issues -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin being the most obvious -- have dominated the political discussion. That phase of the campaign may have ended.

The debate will now probably shift back to fundamentals. Whom will voters trust to lead the country out of this problem and whom do they believe has a credible plan for doing so? What matters now is how McCain and Obama respond to the latest evidence of an economy still struggling to overcome the damage inflicted by the real estate and home mortgage crises.

Neither has truly won the confidence of voters, and yesterday neither offered fresh ideas about how to deal with what has become a mess of huge proportions.

By McCain's own admission, the economy is not his natural turf, and his comments yesterday seemed less than sure-footed. At his first event of the day, he acknowledged that the economy is in difficult straits and promised to shake up Washington and Wall Street. But he also said he still thinks that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong."

The Obama campaign pounced on those words, saying they showed McCain to be "disturbingly out of touch" with the reality that everyday Americans face. At a rally in Grand Junction, Colo., Obama wondered: "What economy are you talking about?" The comments also seemed at odds with McCain's new television commercial that declares an economic crisis.

By the time the Republican nominee had made the short flight to Orlando for a town hall meeting, his campaign had e-mailed reporters new remarks he would deliver. They seemed a 180-degree turn. If McCain's earlier comments had seemed designed to reassure, his new ones were dire. "The American economy is in a crisis -- in a crisis," he repeated.

Obama has been under pressure from Democrats, nervous about McCain's post-convention rise in the polls, to refocus his campaign message on the economy. Campaigning in Colorado, he described the recent series of events as "the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression" and accused Washington and Wall Street of failures.

"I certainly don't fault Senator McCain for these problems," he said. "But I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to. It's the same philosophy we've had for the last eight years -- one that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else."

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