10/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Hobbesian Media Culture May Trump Obama's Big Issue Opportunity

Barack Obama's campaign finally hits John McCain for top economic advisor Phil Gramm, a principal deregulator. But Obama's vagueness thus far on solutions to the financial crisis leaves him vulnerable in our Hobbesian media culture.

It's not exactly "Happy Days Are Here Again," but there's no question that economic crisis is generally a Democratic campaign tonic. With Barack Obama moving ahead again in the polls, Sarah Palin's luster fading as I wrote two weeks ago, and John McCain flailing, it should be good times for Obama.

But it's not all good for him, because Obama still hasn't presented a clearcut approach on the crisis. And that presents an ongoing opportunity for Team McCain to use our Hobbesian new media environment to make major trouble for the Democratic frontrunner.

Remember, all the way back to last week? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had failed, McCain's take on Russia was demonstrably wrong, there was big trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what we laughingly call our national political debate was focused on lipstick and pigs.

Steve Schmidt, who I profiled on Huffington Post when he took over direction of the McCain campaign in early July, and know very well from his direction of Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide re-election, is a master of manipulating the new media environment to trip up and scorch Obama.

He has what I think of as a Hobbesian view of the new media environment. In his view, media outlets can be backed off by a campaign. There's no established primacy of credibility. The New York Times is no better than anything else. In fact, it's frequently treated as an enemy.

A blog can be as powerful as a newspaper, even more so given its superior speed. And deliberative network news can be overwhelmed by talk radio and the easily stampeded cycle of cable news chatter.

The absence of clarity around Obama's policy on the present crisis, while perhaps admirable from a traditional academic view, presents opportunity in the Hobbesian media universe.

Vagueness can be cast as anything. And in this case, probably something bad.

Of course, it is a confusing situation. And McCain is confusing as all get out with regard to what he's doing. But Schmidt and his colleagues in Team McCain are much better at rapid, ruthless attack.

Especially as few really understand what is going on. Which means that Obama can get spun out again.

With the crisis full-blown, the laissez faire Bush/Cheney Administration is reacting like a Eurocommunist regime on speed. Big bailouts, still hazy in their particulars but not in their scope, are the order of the day. Hundreds of billions of dollars of government money is being used to float financial markets and bail out at least one firm, the world's biggest insurance firm, and perhaps more.

In the midst of all this, the presidential campaign debate has become quite murky. It's an environment once again advantaging Barack Obama and the Democrats, as Obama moves quickly this week to leads in most polls.

But it's not clear precisely what Obama wants done. He met with key economic advisors today in Florida -- including much of the top Bill Clinton team from his Cabinet and White House -- and came forth with a similar speech to what he said earlier in the week. Action is needed. Regulators and overseers have failed. He's not against what the Bush administration is doing. But he's not specifically endorsing it and is continuing to evaluate the situation. Oh, and this shows the problems of financialist greed and the failure of John McCain's deregulationist approach.

For his part, McCain has lurched around this week. On Monday, he called the American economy strong and called for a 9/11-style commission to investigate. He later adjusted his remarks on the state of the economy. And lurched into an angry sort of populist rhetoric against greed. Hit with reminders of his deregulationist record and the numbers of Wall Street lobbyists deeply involved with running his campaign, he attacked Obama as a tax-and-spend Democrat and tried to link him to the disgraced former head of the failed Fannie Mae home finance corporation. He said he would fire Securities & Exchange Commission head Chris Cox, which he couldn't do. Today he declared he is against more bailouts -- even as the Bush team is pressing forward -- and unveiled a plan to help some homeowners. And attacked Obama, implying he somehow bore responsibility for the meltdown.

If McCain is hyperactive, Obama is phlegmatic. While the overall environment should favor Obama, it's quite dangerous for him.