The ground under the presidential race is shifting, at great peril to Barack Obama in his primary contest against Hillary Clinton.
At the starting line, Clinton’s insider credentials and celebrity status were both a strength and a weakness. Obama’s lack of Washington experience and his outsider’s critique of a flawed government was a popular formula that attracted many followers.
Today, Obama’s message of transformational change seems less relevant as a credit crisis cuts through Middle America’s pocketbook like a tornado down Main Street.
Voters’ outrage about Washington lobbyists – whom Obama has demonized to great effect – has been replaced by the stark reality of the unemployment letter at work or the foreclosure notice in the mail box.
For middle- and working-class whites and Latinos who are not bound to Obama by the same racial kinship as African Americans, declining home values trump bipartisan political reform.
And finally, Obama’s legitimate assertion that he is more of a Washington outsider than Clinton is overshadowed by Clinton’s association with a sustained period of economic prosperity under Bill Clinton.
The central question now facing the remaining Democratic voters and superdelegates is simple: Does America most need an agent of political reform or an agent of economic reform?
The stranglehold over legislative policy by special interest money and lobbyists is a frequent Obama target. However, in key races in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Clinton has defeated Obama handily among white middle-class and working-class voters.
In short, Clinton has focused on the economic concerns of families and women who face declining savings, job loss, health care problems and home foreclosures.
In an earlier column endorsing Clinton I wrote:
“Obama blames partisanship, special interest money and turf wars for creating a system no longer capable of coherent domestic and international policies. Clinton believes our present government can deliver important change. Her bread and butter agenda is aimed at meeting the economic needs of Americans rather than critiquing the failures of democratic government.”
As Obama struggles to expand his base of support among the white working class, questions are mounting about his transformational message and messianic rhetoric. Where are the substantive programs which will make Obama’s rhetoric real?
More important, how relevant is Obama’s message to working class Americans facing an uncertain economic future?
In his April 25 column, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman made a compelling argument: “Maybe his transformational campaign isn’t winning over working class voters because transformation isn’t what they’re looking for.”
What are they looking for? Answers to a gathering economic tempest. Concrete solutions to a catastrophic loss of homes and savings. Protection from unseen forces that blindside jobs, wages and pensions. First aid in the form of an affordable health care system. Relief from high gas prices eating into fixed income.
History dictates the needs that leaders must address in order to gain and hold power. This year’s presidential campaign has changed course. The campaign began with Iraq and America’s image abroad as defining issues.
But as the U.S. economy faces trauma after trauma, unease is growing that an unprecedented recession looms. Globalization’s porcelain promises are beginning to show cracks.
As the issues change, voters are rewriting the job description of their next president. Ask yourself which candidate for President – John McCain, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton – can best do the following job: “Put the American economic engine back on track.”
The answer is the reason why Hillary Clinton is still very much alive in the race for President of the United States.