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From 'A More Perfect Union' to Prices at the Grand Union

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Obama needs to shake up the campaign, to hit a "hard reset" on the political dynamic. The pundits are turning against him, which means superdelegates could soon follow. It's time for him to follow some well-worn advice from the suburbs: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

If you believe the conventional wisdom, it's all coming down to those white "Reagan Democrat" voters. If they don't get behind the Democratic nominee, we're told, the Dems will lose. Of course, life has an unfortunate way of being more complicated than the conventional wisdom. (After all, can the Democrats afford to alienate black voters in their pursuit of working-class whites?) Still, it's becoming clear that Obama needs to do a better job speaking to the kind of voter once condescendingly described as a "regular person."

Can he do it? Probably ... if he's willing to make some changes to his message. He needs to make those white middle-class white voters comfortable with him before Indiana votes, because a loss there would do even more serious damage to his November chances. And he needs to address those simmering concerns about his ability to connect with all segments of the electorate. The best way to do that is by confronting them head-on.

Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech on race was inspirational and brilliant. But I remember telling a comedian friend at the time that it might have been, as they say in stand-up, "too hip for the room." I agree with those who say it would be a sea change in American life to have a President capable of giving that kind of speech. But he has to get elected first. For that, he'll need to tell people how he'll change their lives - not abstractly, but concretely.

When Norman Mailer wrote his 1960 essay about John Kennedy, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket,"1 he was using the new-styled grocery store as an emblem of what postwar America had become. He wrote of "the spirit of the supermarket, that homogeneous extension of stainless surfaces and psychoanalyzed people, packaged commodities and ranch homes, interchangeable, geographically unrecognizable, that essence of a new postwar SuperAmerica."

But that was almost 50 years ago. In those days supermarkets and gas stations shone with promise, however prefabricated and homogeneous, and with the gleam of polished metal. But that part of the American Dream's gotten rusty. Consumerism isn't about hope anymore. It's about fear. Grocery stores are battlegrounds filled with dread. Each shelf is a danger zone; a new shock to the family budget may be hiding there. Gas pumps are bearers of bad news, their gauges clicking off ever-rising numbers. If Obama's going to reinvigorate his candidacy, he needs to move from a More Perfect Union to the Grand Union.

What can he do? He can show up at a supermarket in Indiana - maybe the Marsh Supermarket on Jersey Street in Indianapolis, where two loaves of Wonder Bread are going for $3.00 if you have a Marsh card - and give a speech in the parking lot. He can tell voters of all races that he understands their financial fears. He can rattle off some grocery prices to show that, unlike George Bush Sr., he knows the specifics of their pain.

It would be a mistake to try acting "just like them." Some voters may think Obama's "not their type of guy." So what? If they think he can help them financially, he'll become their kind of guy. So Obama would be better off being himself, and saying something like this:

"I know my life story may seem strange to you, with its elements of different nations and different races. You might think my pastor was a little weird sometimes, or whatever they're saying on Fox these days. But the economy bears down on all of us, whatever our backgrounds may be. You shouldn't vote for me because you think I'm just like you - although I may be more like you than you realize. You should vote for me because bread in this supermarket costs $1.50. Can you believe that? It was less than a dollar a few years ago.

"There's a reason for that, and together we can solve it. A lot of that price increase comes from fuel costs, because the oil companies have had a free hand. Vote for me and we'll fix that. Gas is four bucks a gallon now, and we can fix that too."

"Now, I know people make fun of me sometimes for talking about change -- yeah, they do -- but I'm not talking about pie-in-the-sky change. I've got a couple of opponents who have been in Washington for a long time. My Democratic opponent campaigned for NAFTA, and now some of your jobs are gone. My Republican opponent is in bed with those big oil companies that are pushing up prices. And they both work with those corporate lobbyists that sent our jobs overseas. That's what I want to change."

"So when you hear somebody say 'all that Obama ever talks about is change,' you tell them that you just went shopping today and you don't have any change left ... in your pocket. Tell them you could use a little 'change' right about now. You tell them that this Obama guy may be a little different, but I just filled up my tank and, you know what? I could use a little 'change' right about now. Then you go vote for me, and when the next election rolls around some of these prices will have changed ... for the better."

Would Obama ever give a speech like that? It's hard to say. It may feel too populist for him. He may prefer not to be defined that way. But playing it safe isn't working for him. Nobody denies the brilliance of his gifts. But if Superman doesn't come to the supermarket, the superdelegates may start shopping elsewhere.

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1Here's an excerpt from Mailer's essay, to remind you how some people saw JFK during the 1960 election. And see who the contrast with Lyndon Johnson reminds you of:

"... yet there was an elusive detachment to everything (Kennedy) did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind. Johnson gave you all of himself, he was a political animal, he breathed like an animal, sweated like one, you knew his mind was entirely absorbed with the compendium of political fact and maneuver; Kennedy seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom, but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing."