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Obama Wraps His Hopes Inside Economic Anxiety

INDIANAPOLIS — When Senator Barack Obama began speaking about the economy on Wednesday, it sounded, at first, as if ghastly news was coming.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., answers a question during the first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2008 election hosted by South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., Thursday, April 26, 2007. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., answers a question during the first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2008 election hosted by South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., Thursday, April 26, 2007. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Mr. Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, told thousands of people at a rally here that America was “at a moment of great uncertainty.” He used the words “significant drop,” “anxiety,” “crisis” and “worse” all in his second sentence. He explained why the credit markets were frozen, and in plainspoken language described how automobile plants were closing because people could not get car loans, how savings for college and retirement were “disappearing.”

“Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked the electorate if you were better off than you were four years ago,” Mr. Obama told a grandstand full of voters in the swing state of Indiana. “At the pace things are going, you’re going to have to ask if you were better off than you were four weeks ago.”

Then, suddenly, a cardinal rule of politics seemed to kick in: People vote for optimists, not pessimists, even if that means obscuring hard truths in the short term.

And so Mr. Obama veered rather sharply into his version of Reaganesque confidence, taking a page from a leader who talked a great deal about sunny days but very little about the budget deficits and debt that flowed from his policies.

“I’m here, Indiana, to tell you that there are better days ahead,” Mr. Obama said after his line about the grim way things were going. “I know these are tough times, and I know that many of you are anxious about the future. But this isn’t a time for fear or for panic. This is a time for resolve and steady leadership.”

Unlike his opponent, Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, Mr. Obama does not brand himself as the “straight talk” candidate, but he has presented himself as a change agent with new, workable, bipartisan ideas for the economy. His remarks on Wednesday were only the latest, though, to reveal a disconnect between his optimistic promises and the trickier work of enacting an agenda in a polarized capital now gripped by a financial crisis.

In short, Mr. Obama continues to promise that everything will get better once he is president, but does not explain how his programs and governing philosophy will adjust to new economic realities. He said Wednesday that Americans needed to unite to avoid “a dark and painful recession,” even though many economists say that a recession has already begun, and that pain may be inevitable.

Mr. Obama also turned to placing blame for the economy on President Bush and charging that all Mr. McCain offers are personal attacks and “more of the same Bush economics that led us into this mess the first place.”

At the debate on Tuesday night, for instance, the moderator, Tom Brokaw of NBC News, asked Mr. Obama if he was telling voters “that the American economy is going to get much worse before it gets better and they ought to be prepared for that.”

“No,” Mr. Obama replied, “I am confident about the American economy.”

That was one of the answers even his supporters at the debate judged to be indirect, as well as a moment when Mr. Obama opted to keep promising health care reform and regulatory changes in general terms, instead of laying out specific ways that Americans would have to deal with the economy.

“I feel like he wants us to rest assured that things will get better with him in office even as every sign suggests that the bad economy is out of anyone’s control, even the president’s,” said Lindsey Trella, one of the audience members at the debate who asked a question, and who said afterward that she planned to vote for Mr. Obama.

“Now is the time for Obama and McCain to start telling us what they would do to improve the economy, and which plans of theirs they can no longer afford,” she added.

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and an adviser to Al Gore in 2000, noted that Mr. Obama was ahead in the race right now, and that he wanted to avoid doing anything that shifted the dynamic in Mr. McCain’s favor.

“I think both candidates tend to approach these forums more as if they are delivering PowerPoint presentations then pointing to people’s hearts and guts,” Mr. Lehane said after the debate. “Obama played error-free ball.”

Mr. Obama has been reluctant to suggest any downsizing in his ambitious legislative agenda. On Wednesday, he argued that better governance of the economy, as well as an end to the $10-billion-a-month war in Iraq and billions of dollars in “cutting waste,” would help turn the American financial system around and pay for his new programs.

After promising to enact universal health care and create millions of jobs in the energy sector and through public-works investments, Mr. Obama finally came to a word that politicians often invoke in recessionary times: “sacrifice.” But even here, he said sacrifice would not “be easy,” only to avoid saying what the sacrifice would be or how much would be expected of people.

“We will all need to sacrifice. We will need to work a little harder,” he said. “We will need to work a little smarter; parents will need to turn off their TV sets and make sure their children are doing their homework.”

Some in the grandstand applauded. Others laughed. It was hard to tell which sentiment Mr. Obama was looking for.