As two major developments become increasingly likely - a Democratic presidential victory on November 4 and a sustained economic crisis - Barack Obama faces a difficult choice: does he begin now to prepare the electorate for tough times, or does he continue to maintain a politically contrived optimism on the assumption that he can shift gears after election day.
The short-term incentives are all on the side of maintaining a happy face: As things stand, Obama keeps moving ahead in the polls, winning debates and expanding his hold on battleground states. Why junk a winner?
Conversely, Obama and his aides have to calculate how the rhetoric of his campaign will influence his ability to govern. On this score, there is wide disagreement, with political scientists, strategists and political analysts - in responses given to the Huffington Post - all over the map.
Pew Center pollster Andy Kohut notes that both Obama and McCain "are caught in a bind. If they say we are in for a tough run, they run the risk of being seen as unconfident and pessimistic. However this opens them up for being seen as wrong and letting down the public once elected."
One argument is that a failure to prepare voters for what's coming can have disastrous results. Both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton promised either tax cuts or no new taxes and ended up reneging on their commitments. Bush lost in 1992 and Clinton lost his Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate in 1994. Conversely, Ronald Reagan, who was explicit in promoting his conservative agenda during the 1980 campaign, took office with the legitimate claim that he had a mandate to seek tax and domestic spending cuts.
"It simply is not credible to suggest that the policies to be offered in response to the credit crisis make up exactly the same laundry list as [Senator Obama] offered a year ago. But that is all [he] offered in his second debate with Senator McCain," says Michael Malbin, professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY. "Sen. Obama owes it to the American public to be telling us more. The financial crisis is not business as usual."
Looking at the question from a more strategic vantage point, political scientist David Brady, of the Hoover Institution and Stanford, says Obama should prepare voters by telling them now that it's "'too early to know how well the bailout will work.' Otherwise he could be like Bill Clinton in 1992, having to raise taxes because the deficit was too high."
The opposite argument is that the political costs of voicing pessimism are prohibitive, that there is plenty of opportunity to prepare voters for drastic action after election day, and that a candidate risks worsening conditions by sounding strong warnings. The classic example to support this case is the 1932 Depression-era campaign of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said little or nothing while campaigning in 1932 to indicate the contours of his New Deal program.
"Obama can downplay the economic crisis now in order not to scare voters too much. But if he wins he should immediately do what Franklin Roosevelt did 70 years ago, which is provide himself a warrant for dramatic, status quo-altering changes by creating a narrative that demands a new, disruptive type of politics and a realigning set of policies to go with it," argues University of Maryland political scientist Tom Schaller.
Along similar lines, Sam Popkin of the University of California-San Diego warns against explicit statements of potential danger: "Anything you reveal now gives McCain a chance to Mau-Mau you... Anything Obama would say now would undermine the flexibility to change course. As they say in diplomacy, 'strategic ambiguity.'"
Brookings scholar Tom Mann suggests that "If Obama can win a comfortable victory based on his current platform, he will be in a position to size up the economic situation he faces and go to the country with the proposals he deems necessary. Remember that in the midst of the Great Depression, FDR ran on the promise to balance the budget. His bold leadership came after he was elected and inaugurated."
From another point of view altogether, political blogger Chris Bowers of Open Left argues to the Huffington Post that Obama has already inflicted significant damage on himself: "In regards to the economic crisis, Obama already undermined his ability to set the agenda and govern when he, like pretty much all leading Democrats, accepted Paulson's argument that $700 billion needed to be dispersed immediately. Not only was that clearly an example of Paulson setting the agenda, rather than Obama or Democrats, but spending of that size this year has reduced the amount of governing Obama could do next year as President."
Democratic lobbyist Larry O'Brien, whose father was a legendary chairman of the Democratic Party, contends that Obama is right on course:
"I believe the economic crisis speaks for itself to a large extent. Senator Obama certainly has acknowledged and discussed it... If the rescue plan proves not to be quite the cure, a President Obama obviously would need to lead the effort to identify additional measures... Not speculating during the campaign about that with any great clarity or precision does not strike me as untoward or fraught. The time to begin to come to grips with ramifications will present itself in the effort to assemble and present the new President's first budget proposal, armed with a somewhat more clinically informed sense of just what the situation is."
Political analyst Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, tells the Huffington Post he expects "that if Obama wins, he immediately takes out the garbage -- they push out all the problems, that the country, the financial situation is far worse than anyone ever suspected, forcing big policy changes far greater than anyone anticipated. Get the problems out there quick, while President Bush still owns them, then position yourself as having to clean up the mess."
A number of scholars suggest that Obama should not view the issue as an either/or question, but take a more nuanced approach.
"In terms of governing, Obama has to walk a fine line on what he says," comments Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty. "On one hand, he has to make the crisis seems serious enough that citizens are willing to accept sacrifice and legislators are willing to take political risks. But on the other, no set of economic policies will be successful unless the basic confidence of investors and consumers returns. Using too many Great Depression analogues will undermine any policies he undertakes, and he and his party will suffer badly if the economy does not improve by 2010."
In another response, Columbia's Robert Erikson argues that "while Obama should not give the impression that he is ignoring the economic crisis, the greatest risk would be to enter the fray the wrong way. From a political standpoint, Obama only needs to remind the voters that he will bring a new team into office to work on the problem."
Media message maven Howard Wolfson, communications director of Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, outlines the strategy that in many respects describes the way Obama will likely deal with the situation:
"Obama needs to be clear about the challenges we face and the real pain people are feeling while conveying optimism about our ability to get out of this mess."
Whatever the strategic choice, the Obama campaign has been premised on the claim of restoring a degree of integrity to the political process. If his own private assessment is that the country appears to be headed toward dire times, any attempt to gloss that over risks the danger that voters will detect a politically expedient masking of his own beliefs - a sure way to undermine both his campaign and, if he wins, his presidency.