Obama's Economic Challenge

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Jae C. Hong / AP

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally

Barack Obama's single greatest advantage in this election is the state of the economy. It's the top issue on voters' minds. President Bush looks likely to leave office with gas prices three times what they were when he was elected, and the stock market is groaning under the weight of the housing crisis, stagnating wages and increasing job losses. Yet throughout the summer, the Illinois Senator seems to have hit a ceiling in surveys, unable to crack 50% approval, usually hovering in the mid-40s, in public-opinion polls. Why isn't this advantage reflecting in polls? The answer lies in two kinds of economic voters Obama has yet to fully persuade: one group from the right and the other from the left, both of whom share a similar concern.

The first type is reflected in Ed Hecimovich, 41, who had just sat down for a greasy- spoon lunch with his wife and three young children when the Secret Service swarmed Schoop's Diner in Portage, Ind., and Obama swept in for a cheeseburger. Hecimovich, a pipe fitter who twice voted for President Bush, asked the candidate about the economy, his top concern. Obama's answers impressed the independent, but he's still undecided. "I like that Obama stands for change," Hecimovich says. "But he doesn't have the experience."

Obama met the second type of economic voter the next morning in St. Paul, Minn., when he stopped by the Copper Dome Restaurant for some pancakes. There he met Fred Romo, 71, a retired Ford factory worker. Romo's a lifelong Democrat, but he remains undecided, even after meeting Obama. "I'm kind of leaning towards Obama, but he's a rookie, you know, and I'm kind of worried about that," says Romo, who wants a candidate who'll bring down the cost of living for retirees.

It was Hillary Clinton who planted the first doubts about Obama on the economy. The key theme: experience. "Hillary said she's the candidate for people who need a President," says Thomas Riehle, a partner at RT Strategies, a bipartisan polling firm in Washington. "In other words, people who don't need a President can afford to vote for Obama because he's exciting, represents change, etc." Which is why, Riehle says, Obama did so badly in some blue collar areas — places along the Ohio River, for example, where Clinton beat him by two- and three-to-one margins.

Taking a few pages from the Clintons' playbook, Obama is beginning to eschew his signature monster rallies in favor of smaller events: roundtable discussions, town-hall meetings and surprise trips to diners. In his earlier speeches, his stories were mostly inspirational. But Obama has begun to also mention some of the painful stories he hears from voters — just as Clinton did. In making his case for an energy rebate, last week Obama pointed to "the mother that had to cut back on groceries because of rising gas prices, the guy I met who couldn't fill up his gas tank to go on a job search." He is also growing more detailed in his policy proposals. The word legislation, hardly found in his early speeches, is now mentioned regularly.

Clinton's strategy worked against Obama in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The voters in those states are Romo's brethren and the Democratic base that Obama needs to hold. Obama should learn Clinton's lesson, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Obama could use a little more empathy and a little less lecture," Sabato says. "Feel your pain, anyone?" The constituency is willing to be persuaded. Says Romo: "I'm hoping Obama would be a better steward of the economy, but I'm undecided." He adds, "I don't like McCain. McCain is Bush, and we've already had this one, you know what I mean?" In the end, says Riehle, Obama retains a big advantage with true-blue Democrats over McCain, who is seen as anti-union, pro–free trade and supportive of Bush's fiscal policies.

In addition, political analysts say Obama needs to focus more on expanding his political map and luring fiscal-conservative voters away from McCain — voters like Hecimovich. McCain's "base are independent-leaning voters concerned by overspending in Washington," Riehle says. "Obama can battle McCain in appealing to those kind of voters very well." But so far Obama has seemed unwilling to do what both Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton did against their respective rivals: paint his opponent as, having spent the past 30 years in Washington, being out of touch with ordinary voters.

Instead, Obama accuses McCain of running for a third Bush term, a message that is resonating with some fiscal conservatives like Hecimovich. "McCain, he'd be a good military leader, but I don't know as far as running the economy," Hecimovich says as he balances his little boy Sam on the lunch table. "It's hard to say at this point who'd handle the economy better." Then his wife Debbie leans over, steadying Sam, and almost under her breath adds, "We need change, so whoever's going to make the biggest change."

While Romo and the Hecimoviches make up their minds, Obama and McCain remain close in polls. When I ask Obama on the flight from Minnesota to Chicago if he's worried about his economic message, he reminds me that it's still early. "My sense is that during the summer months, people are not going to be paying as much attention as they're going to be paying in September and October." Obama says he plans to highlight the differences between his and McCain's tax and health-care plans in the fall. "When the American people start focusing on those contrasts, they will see two fundamentally different visions of where we can take America." In the words of an old Clinton campaign, he plans to remind McCain: It's the economy, stupid.