The most amazing facet of the presidential campaign is not how close the overall race is, but how close the polls are specifically on economic issues. The Washington Post's poll a few days ago showed John McCain just 5 points behind Barack Obama on economic issues, and the Reuters poll on Wednesday showed McCain actually ahead of Obama on those issues. How is this possible? That's the question I examine in my weekly newspaper column out today.
The answer has a lot to do with Obama. Until this week when he started giving much sharper speeches and airing new ads, Obama has avoided the issues like NAFTA and the kind of crystal clear, populist stands that won him the Democratic primary. In fact, that's an understatement - in many cases, he explicitly took anti-populist positions on these issues, such as when he watered down his critique of NAFTA. His campaign even used a speech about financial regulation to berate the Depression-era law that might have prevented this week's meltdown (ie. the Glass-Steagall Act) as "increasingly inefficient."
That has allowed McCain to muddle the issues, and still make a play for the mantle of populism. That the Washington Post, for instance, can write a story about McCain even trying to be the populist in this race is less a commentary on the silliness of media narratives than on Obama's failure to make it impossible for McCain to be seen as anything other than a royalist - especially considering McCain"s record on kitchen-table economic issues.
So why has Obama - again, until this week - been so tepid on economic issues? As the column says, it has a lot to do with how much money he raises from Wall Street and how he surrounds himself with Wall Street insiders.
Thus, while preaching a seemingly transformative message of "change," he dispatches academic elites like Cass Sunstein to the pages of the New Republic to reassure that magazine's establishment audience that he's actually only a "minimalist." That's code for elitist - but in a different sense than the Republicans claim.
Obama clearly knows that the center of American public opinion on key economic issues is now a progressive center. His refusal to more forcefully embrace that center suggests he has been more interested in appeasing the editorial pages, campaign insiders, academics and Wall Streeters than the public at large. That may not be the more brazen elitism of McCain proposing new tax cuts for his fellow millionaires, but it is elitism, and it has allowed this race to be closer on economic issues than it should.
Of course, the hope is that this week will change everything - that the Wall Street crisis will jolt Obama into a more aggressive stance. That not only would be good for his political prospects, but more importantly, good for the country. This moment of crisis demands something far more than "minimalism." If we'd had "minimalism" back in the 1930s, there would have been no New Deal, and perhaps no economic recovery from the Great Depression. This moment demands populism - a fearless and proud embrace of what the public, not the elites, want.
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