01/24/2008 10:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Problem With Obama's Message

The Politico previews a story about Barack Obama's campaign strategy for confronting Hillary Clinton by writing that the Illinois senator "wants to run against '90s -- without saying what was wrong with 90s." That's absolutely right - and that's the big problem.

Obama's criticism of Clintonism is that it was too rancorous and polarizing. The problem is that's a tactical/political argument that doesn't connect to regular people's daily lives. The most powerful indictment of Clintonism goes after its capitulation on core issues like health care, trade and helping the poor, leading to results like no universal health care plan, NAFTA, welfare "reform" an acceleration of income inequality - results that harmed millions of Americans and that would appall Democratic primary voters if Obama forced them to center stage in the campaign.

People may tell pollsters they don't like "polarization" in a general sense, but what that really means is they don't like gridlock - that is, they really don't like progress being inhibited on the issues that matter to them, and they especially don't like when the White House uses its power to hurt the middle-class as the Clintons did in so many fundamental ways (last I checked, most people weren't complaining about "polarization" when FDR was powering through the New Deal over the objections of his opponents).

Obama may be waking up to his strategy's shortcomings. The New York Daily News reports that he is starting to indict Clinton on the issue of trade, and NAFTA in specific. However, he supported the recent Peru Free Trade Agreement - a bill that expands the NAFTA model into South America.

More generally, it may be too little, too late. Having surrounded himself by insiders since he went to the Senate, Obama's has gotten used to making high-brow argument about "polarization" and "divisiveness" that don't really make those in power uncomfortable. For a while, he has needed to make arguments about substance - how Clintonism sold out the middle class, how Clinton represents Big Money, etc. In short, he has been making a case about how politics should be conducted rather than a case about why his opponent's politics hurt regular working people, and why his politics will help working people. And while the former might make his consultants and Washington aides happy, I don't think it helps his campaign.