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For Obama, Dialogue Drove Week's Work

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and running mate Joe Biden campaign cross-country, making several stops a day. The candidates have heavily addressed the economy in recent days, following a catastrophic week on Wall Street and a huge government bailout.

"I'd rather err on the side of someone who's got that kind of equanimity -- and I think we've seen it over and over in the campaign -- as opposed to someone who, and some Democrats I realize want this, has passion spilling out of them," Casey said. "In a campaign context, that may seem like a stronger candidate, but as a president may not be as effective."

"Obama on the phone this week sounded like a president should: asking the right questions, being substantive, not looking for an immediate political benefit," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who fielded two or three calls from the Illinois Democrat during the course of the negotiations.

"Certainly the economy is the high ground for Obama, and McCain has made it only more so," Schumer said. "I think this past week could end up being a turning point for the presidential race."

For Obama, who struggled with how to make the economy an issue during the Democratic primaries, it was not always a given that he would be much more successful against McCain, despite the inherent advantage in running against the Republicans who oversaw the current downturn. Just three months ago, Democrats openly fretted that Obama would fail to connect with the white, working-class voters who were drawn to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama set out to conquer that challenge right after clinching the nomination, launching a 2 1/2-week economic tour three days after Clinton dropped out and bringing new economic advisers into his campaign. By the time Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. called Obama on Sept. 5 to discuss the quickly developing crisis surrounding housing giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Obama was relatively up to speed on the issue, his aides said.

Obama's response to unfolding events in the days since has offered a window onto his style of management as well as his substantive economic beliefs.

As a slew of financial institutions collapsed and the entire Wall Street landscape shifted, Obama delivered a series of economic speeches on his regular campaign stops -- adding new statements about the failures of Wall Street and their effects on "Main Street," synthesizing previous proposals he had laid out for greater oversight, and eventually remarking on a $700 billion bailout proposal as it emerged. He began speaking to Paulson on a daily basis, aides said, asking for status updates; he also increased his phone calls to members of Congress involved in the talks. Several Democratic members of the House and Senate reported hearing from Obama up to several times a day.

"The center of gravity of the election has moved toward the economy and the message of change and away from the culture of slashing the budget and reform," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a member of Congress who speaks to Obama most frequently. He described Obama as having economic instincts similar to those of former President Bill Clinton, for whom Emanuel worked in the White House during the international financial meltdowns of 1998. "You would want to see that same type of judgment, and that's exactly what I'm seeing," Emanuel said.

Not all Democrats are convinced that Obama has entirely closed the gap that emerged in the spring. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said that Obama now fully owns the economy but still has work to do conveying his sense of command to the electorate.

"I think his ideas are great, and if they ideas are properly transmitted, he scores heavily with them," Rendell said. "I'm not sure the campaign has done quite as good a job in transmitting those ideas. But once they do -- and I think they will in the next six weeks -- those white, working-class voters are going to like what they hear."


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