Time for Obama to Change the Game

Time for Obama to Change the Game

By Clarence Page - September 14, 2008

Unemployment has risen to its highest level in five years. Uninsured Americans top 47 million. Real wages have fallen in relation to inflation for every educational group in America except for those with professional degrees since 2000. Those recent census figures, plus an unpopular war, have made this a great year for Democrats. Yet, less than two months to Election Day, the party is in a panic.

Their presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, has lost his momentum and his mojo. Sen. John McCain, newly infused with mojo-by-proxy in the form of his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is exciting his own party's base for a change. While Obama's campaign tries to sort out the surprises and come up with a new game plan, polls show the electorate rapidly coming together into a dead heat, at best.

Yet, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, our national presidential debate found itself hung up on pig's lips. McCain's campaign accused Obama of dissing Palin when he used "lipstick on a pig" to talk about McCain's economic ideas. Palin has famously described herself as a pit bull with lipstick, but the pig metaphor had previously been used by Obama and McCain. The argument is silly, but its impact is very serious. Team McCain pushed Team Obama off-message for at least two days that the Illinois senator will never get back.

What went wrong For Obama? Quite simply, McCain targeted his opponent's strongest themes and attacked them -- until he could make them his own.

For example, McCain attacked Obama's lack of Washington experience and had no more success than Sen. Hillary Clinton did in the Democratic primaries. So McCain morphed himself into an "agent of change." What kind of change? He hasn't been very detailed on that. But, he would argue, neither has Obama.

McCain's "celebrity" ads that compared Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton helped to stop Obama's mid-summer momentum. Then, after Obama's big Democratic Convention speech, McCain produce a celebrity of his own. Gov. Palin suddenly brought something McCain's campaign desperately needed: excitement among conservatives who, pre-Palin, were reluctant to vote for McCain without pinching their noses.

Another surprise: Palin helped conservatives to hijack identity politics. As much as Obama avoided mentioning race and other "issues that divide us" in his campaign, Palin eagerly offered herself as an icon to working "hockey moms" everywhere. Sure, conservatives have long decried those who rally politically around race and gender, but they don't mind as much when the rallying comes in support of their home team.

Palin may not know much about the particulars of the "Bush Doctrine," as she revealed in her first sit-down with a network news reporter. But ignorance of foreign policy details didn't stop the rise of President Bush, either. More significant to McCain is the "one of us" appeal she offers to "small town" voters, a term that has become a synonym for voters who find the skinny guy with the funny name from Illinois to be, shall we say, a bit too "exotic" for their tastes.

What's Obama to do now? First, he needs to get serious. He needs to remind voters of what's at stake. He needs to remind Americans of how the nation voted for a nice small-town sort of guy in 2000 and 2004 and look at what it got us. Eight years later, jobs and home mortgages are down, budget deficits and fuel prices are up and our foreign policy is best described as "Shoot from the hip."

With that in mind, Obama should not let the niceties of liberal political correctness prevent his campaign from tying McCain and Palin to Bush. Palin makes that easy. She's a harder hardliner than McCain. The issue is not lipstick on a pig but the Bush years in high heels.

Third, Obama needs to put the Clintons to good use. I don't know what Obama and Bill Clinton discussed in their private Sept. 11 lunch in New York. But Obama should have had his big ears tuned in to advice from the master on how to reach those voters who have been the slowest to embrace the senator from Illinois as "one of us."

McCain and Palin reportedly plan to campaign together more frequently than running mates usually do. That spares McCain the awkward sight of drawing smaller crowds than his running mate might attract by campaigning alone. It also offers an opportunity for Obama to make use of his strongest surrogates while Obama and Sen. Joe Biden, his running mate, campaign elsewhere. Even if they secretly want Obama to lose, so Hillary Clinton can run in 2012, the Clintons don't want to risk being blamed for Obama's loss if he does.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services Inc.

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