GOLDEN, Colo.—It’s almost as if the ghost of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign is scaring Barack Obama into action.
After watching a lead erode following weeks of the same withering, often-as-not-untrue assaults that Republicans used to sink Mr. Kerry in 2004, the Obama campaign is dialing up the candidate’s level of aggression, particularly in regard to John McCain’s reaction to the financial crisis quaking under Wall Street.
In the minutes before the campaign plane took off this week from Chicago for a swing through Colorado, Linda Douglass, an Obama spokeswoman, came to the back of the plane and, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, advised reporters to keep their ears open for some especially “spirited” things the candidate had to say about Mr. McCain and the economy.
Mr. Obama duly obliged, spending his sweep through Colorado taking Mr. McCain by the throat for being “out of touch” with American workers—and doing so in uncharacteristically simple terms.
“If you want to understand the difference between how Senator McCain and I would govern as president, you can start by taking a look at how we’ve responded to this crisis,” Mr. Obama said, deliberately, at an event on Sept. 16 before a crowd in a college gym in Golden. “Because Senator McCain’s approach was the same as the Bush administration’s: support ideological policies that made the crisis more likely; do nothing as the crisis hits; and then scramble as the whole thing unravels. Now, my approach has been to try to prevent this turmoil from occurring in the first place.”
Typically for the tightly disciplined, robotically on-message Obama campaign, the change of course was meticulously programmed, a component of a coordinated sharpening of message on the airwaves and by Obama surrogates around the country. (The campaign went so far as to announce beforehand, in a press-released strategy memo, its intention to run more aggressively.)
Perhaps predictably, Mr. Obama still doesn’t appear entirely comfortable in the role of chicken-in-every-pot Clintonian populist.
At the Sept. 16 event, Mr. Obama ran through a laundry list of proposals for government oversight, regulating financial institutions, investigating rating agencies, streamlining regulatory agencies and preventing market manipulation, and attacked Mr. McCain for being out of touch and clueless about the dire state of the economy. But unlike Bill Clinton, who spoke about technical solutions to social ills with a relish that made it seem like he was up at the podium reading love poems to the working people in the crowd, Mr. Obama’s delivery of the newly retooled message this week was clearly a slog—right down to the fact that he read his addresses off of teleprompters.
He said things like, “Over the last few years, commercial banks and thrift institutions were subject to guidelines on subprime mortgages that did not apply to mortgage brokers and companies.”
On the fundamentals, Mr. Obama, sometimes a great orator, is not a great communicator.
Clearly, the bet is that the style issues won’t matter, and that if Mr. Obama and his surrogates deliver the economic message obviously and often enough, it will sink in.
On Sept. 15, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden, gave an economic address in Michigan in which he said Mr. McCain’s election would mean more job loss and called the Republican “Bush 44.”
The next day, Hillary Clinton offered the crystallization of Mr. Obama’s new message, telling Good Morning America that the race was not about who you are for, but “who is for you.” Also on Sept. 16, the campaign seized on a politically tone-deaf comment by Mr. McCain attesting to the strength of the economy by releasing another ad with ominous music and headlines about the collapsing financial markets spliced with Mr. McCain repeating the words “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”
The tougher posture on economic issues was accompanied by a more combative, less respectful attitude overall.
The campaign ruthlessly mocked Mr. McCain, Karl Rove-style, for an aide’s claim that the senator helped create the BlackBerry, a device the candidate has said he doesn’t know how to use.
As one Democratic consultant noted, Mr. Obama’s “honoring of Senator McCain’s service” fell to the wayside, even as the Obama campaign aired an ad calling the McCain campaign “dishonorable.”
Mr. Biden is no longer talking about what good friends he is with Mr. McCain.
“There was a bit of a kid’s gloves approach,” said the consultant.
At an appearance in Golden, Mr. Obama did his best to continue twisting the knife.
“This is what happens when you see seven years of incomes falling for the average worker while Wall Street is booming, and declare—as Senator McCain did earlier this year—that we’ve made great economic progress under George Bush,” Mr. Obama said. “That is how you can reach the conclusion—as late as yesterday—that the fundamentals of the economy are strong.”