After McCain Ad, Obama Dumping Defensive Game

This is the week that Barack Obama got sick of the high road.

“And while Senator McCain’s plan won’t save you at the pump anytime soon, I have to say this, it sure has done a lot to raise campaign dollars,” said Mr. Obama, speaking at the Austintown Fitch High School in Youngstown, Ohio, on the morning of Aug. 5. “Senator McCain raised more than one million dollars from the oil industry just last month, just last month, most of which came after he announced his plan for offshore drilling to a room full of oil executives.”

The crowd booed. Mr. Obama seemed to enjoy it. And a few moments later he had them wildly cheering as he proposed giving them $1,000 each to help alleviate the burden of expensive gas. The money, he thundered from the podium, would come from the windfall profits of the oil companies.

Before he was done, he attacked Mr. McCain for not doing anything to promote alternative energy during his “26 years” in the Senate. The number came off his tongue like an indictment. And he mocked Mr. McCain for saying, on Aug. 4, as Mr. Obama quoted him, “I want to drill here, I want to drill now.”

“I don’t know where he was standing. I mean, I think he was in a building somewhere.” He paused to chuckle with the crowd.

“This plan,” he continued, “will not lower prices today—it won’t lower prices in the next administration.”

The counterattacking communications strategy that got Mr. Obama through his nomination battle against Hillary Clinton is, for the moment at least, gone. It broke down in the face of last week’s withering character attacks from an increasingly disciplined McCain campaign.

The tactical adjustment has been unmissable.

“They are clearly back on offense, which is obviously where you want to be,” said Howard Wolfson, who was communications director for the Clinton campaign.

Hence, after being compared to Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and David Hasselhoff, the Obama campaign stopped complaining about the indignity of it all and brought the focus of the national political conversation around to energy—an issue, like most, on which polls show a lopsided advantage for the Democrats—and John McCain.

“Counterattack has two forms,” said Bob Shrum, the Democratic strategist who was John Kerry’s senior adviser in 2004. “One is direct response, and the other is you open up a new flank, and that is what he is doing here.”

“They lay down a predicate that McCain is responsible for the negativity,” Mr. Wolfson said, “and then are more free to run ads like the one today.”

The ad in question was an unapologetically negative one, released on Aug. 4 and accusing Mr. McCain of being “in the pocket of big oil.”

Two days earlier, on Aug. 2, Mr. Obama telegraphed that a change was coming. Speaking at a press conference in Florida, he said, “Their team is good at creating distractions and engaging in negative attacks and planting doubts about people. We have to make sure that we keep focused on people’s day-to-day concerns. And we’ve got to drive that very hard. And I will keep on driving that hard.”

Mr. McCain has been savaging Mr. Obama as an energy “Dr. No” who is opposed to offshore drilling and all other concrete measures to reduce the burden of expensive gasoline on struggling voters. When Mr. Obama proposed the idea of saving money on gas by making sure car tires were properly inflated, the McCain campaign mocked him as unserious, passing out tire gauges to their press corps as a gag.

This week, Mr. Obama has responded by rolling out an energy plan that calls for tax credits to hasten the transition of the automobile industry to hybrid and plug-in cars; reduced electricity use; and greater use of sustainable fuel to break the country’s dependence on foreign oil. But he also responded to the McCain criticism that he offered nothing immediate by proposing that the windfall profits of oil companies should fund $1,000 rebates to help Americans with gas. And he modified another position, saying he favored selling 70 million barrels of oil from the nation’s strategic reserves to lower the price of gasoline, and that he would consider expanding offshore drilling.

“They’re going around, they’re sending little tire gauges, making fun of this idea as if this is ‘Barack Obama’s energy plan,’” said Mr. Obama, speaking at another campaign event Tuesday afternoon in the gym of the Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea. “Now, two points—one, they know they’re lying about what my energy plan is. But the other thing is, they’re making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption.” He added, “It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant! They think it’s funny that they’re making fun of something that is actually true. They need to do their homework. Because this is serious business. Instead of running ads about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they should go talk to some energy experts and actually make a difference. Come on!’’

After McCain Ad, Obama Dumping Defensive Game