Barack Obama’s overseas trip is dominating the presidential campaign agenda this week. But the central front in his war for the White House--where John McCain will be home fighting--remains the debate over the U.S. economy.
By visiting Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is trying to narrow McCain's advantage on handling national security issues. The economy, however, is where Obama can build an edge of his own.
Rising job losses, home foreclosures, and financial market turmoil on a Republican president’s watch make it much easier for the Democratic candidate to do that.
Yet polls suggest Obama hasn't cemented his advantage and that voters remain open to McCain's arguments and experience in the battlegrounds he values most.
Populist Democrats like Obama’s proposals to raise taxes on Wall Street and the wealthy, cut them for working families, provide short-term stimulus, and invest in the long-term shift toward a clean-energy economy. But they want a feistier tone in Obama’s rhetoric.
Centrist Democrats like his reassuring demeanor and say Obama just needs time to make voters more familiar with how he’d change President Bush’s economic. Obama particularly needs to explain his stance on gas prices. Polling by Stan Greenberg, who advised Bill Clinton's 1992 "It's the Economy, Stupid" campaign, shows Mr. McCain grabbing the upper hand by calling expanded offshore oil drilling.
That provides an opening for McCain in his most important targets; industrial battlegrounds like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. He’s visiting all three during Obama’s trip, while airing a new ad pinning blame on Obama for rising gas prices.
McCain strategists even hope to leverage the extraordinary spectacle of Obama's trip. While Obama draws rock-star attention, McCain will appear in small venues like hardware stores to convey familiarity with average Americans' economic struggles.
McCain is helped by local political circumstances in Michigan, where voters blame Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm as well as President Bush for economic hardships. For that reason, as well as McCain's superior familiarity, Obama still faces a battle there on the economy.
"John McCain is a known quantity," longtime Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus told me. “Barack Obama has the right message for Michigan, but he doesn’t have the trust yet.” Which means that whatever happens on Barack Obama’s foreign trip, he’ll have more important political work to do when he gets back home.
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