Why Is Obama Slipping? Because He Won't Say Which Side He's On.

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

Why is Barack Obama slipping in the polls? Here's why:

"In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, Obama's edge on the economy has slipped to only five percentage points, a low for the campaign."

That's really sad on a lot of levels, especially when you consider the contours of the candidates' tax plans:

"All taxpayers would receive a cut under McCain's plan. Taxes for those who make less than $226,982 would go down under Obama's proposal and they would rise for those who make more than $603,403. Obama would give the biggest cuts to those who make the least, while McCain would give the largest cuts to the very wealthy."

Then again, even considering those facts, I'm not really surprised. Because Obama has refused to really focus on the issues that really draw a crystal clear contrast - issues like trade and the Iraq War. Thus, what policy debate that has survived is one over policy details - ie. whose tax plan is better, rather than, say, why McCain is happy telling Ohioans NAFTA is awesome.

This goes back to what I've been saying for months. Obama refuses to answer the fundamental question - that historical question always asked by organized labor: Which side are you on?

Oh sure, he answers the question on candidate questionnaires, where he commits to strong positions, and his convention speech was a momentary flash of real populist vigor (raising the question of whether it be as fleeting as Gore's 2000 "people versus the powerful" convention speech that boosted his numbers and then was thematically abandoned).

But in most of the public debate, Obama essentially says that question doesn't need to be answered - that he's a consensus builder on everyone's side, and that, as he suggested in my interview with him for The Nation in 2006, he can avoid real confrontations. As he said:

"The question is, Do you let confrontations arise as a consequence of your putting forward a positive vision of what needs to happen and letting the confrontation organically emerge, or do you go out of your way for it?"

The answer on a campaign (which is, after all, an electoral confrontation) is not to "let confrontations organically emerge" - that's the way to be on the defensive all the time. No, the answer on a campaign is yes, go out of your way to shape, build and embrace confrontation in a way that draws a contrast. And in a country whose crises are now so binary - bankers versus homeowners, Wall Street versus Main Street, neocons versus American troops, the wealthy versus the rest of us - Obama's rhetorical posture suggesting that he can be on everyone's side doesn't ring true. It's not an answer to the question "which side are you on" - it's a dodge.

He has to choose a side. Should we read his silence on an issue like trade to mean he is with the the Wall Streeters, insiders and elites that he has surrounded himself with on his campaign - the people who say that the majority of the country that opposes NAFTA should be ignored?

Or is he going to - finally - start publicly declaring that he's taking the majority's side in the struggle to stop the Republicans class war, elites be damned?

Which side are you on, Barack? You've only got a few weeks left to forcefully answer that question - it's just barely enough time, but it's enough. But if you don't, the McCain people are right - this will not be a campaign about issues, and it won't be a Democratic victory.