Obama finds his voice on the economy.

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Oct. 8 2008 6:48 PM

Professor and Pastor

Obama finds his voice on the economy.

US Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Senator Barack Obama speaks at a rally October 8, 2008 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama speaks at a rally at the Indiana State Fairgrounds 

INDIANAPOLIS—It was cold, wet, and muddy for Barack Obama's campaign rally at the state fairgrounds here on Wednesday. The several hundred supporters standing next to the stage sloshed and slid in the muck. Fancy high heels disappeared in the bog. Work boots sunk in up to their laces. No one left without looking like he'd stepped on a falafel platter.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

And yet, despite the weather and equally ominous financial crisis that has come to dominate the campaign, Obama was able to brighten the crowd's mood. What's more, he was able to do so in a way that must be deeply frustrating to his opponent—because Obama is doing a much better job of conveying a message of optimism that John McCain has tried (and failed) to sell himself.

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Obama opened his remarks by recognizing the uncertainty of the "full-blown global financial crisis." He outlined how the bailout affected regular people, repeating an answer he'd given from the debate the night before. Obama explained the relationship between credit and payrolls, inventories and a company's ability to buy new equipment.

He sounded like a professor. That used to be a knock against Obama, but it doesn't seem like such a bad thing these days. Presidents must persuade, and to persuade they must explain.

After playing professor, Obama pivoted to pastor. The sermon was American exceptionalism. "I am here today to tell you that there are better days ahead," he said. "This is the United States of America. This is a nation that has faced down war and Depression; great challenges and great threats. … Here in America, our destiny is not written for us, but by us. That's who we are, and that's the country we need to be right now."

This is pretty standard political stuff. Obama's earliest speeches were thick with references to America's special historical mission. Politicians are always calling on America's greatness. (It is the rhetorical equivalent of that mammoth flag pin Sarah Palin wears.) But at this political moment, with 27 days to go till Election Day, John McCain and Sarah Palin are trying to paint Obama as an American outsider.

It's not just his policies that are wrong, they suggest; it's his character. McCain on Wednesday was in Bethlehem, Pa., where Lehigh County GOP Chairman Bill Platt offered this version of the pitch in his introduction to McCain: "Certainly Barack Obama can learn a thing or two from John McCain about what it means to be a patriot. Think about how you'll feel on Nov. 5 if you see the news that Barack Obama—Barack Hussein Obama—is president of the United States." (The McCain campaign later distanced itself from Platt's remarks.)

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, Obama was singing a song to America. Sure, he laid out specific programs on tax cuts, education, and health care. His story about his mother spending her last days fighting insurance companies as she died from ovarian cancer is especially effective, on both a personal and political level. The current economic crisis has left many Americans feeling vulnerable, and Obama's message is that McCain's health care plan will only make them feel more so.

But the emotional thrust of his speech was that our collective American identity is the key to overcoming our adversity. "I won't pretend this will be easy or come without cost," he said. "We will all need to sacrifice, and we will all need to pull our weight because now more than ever, we are all in this together. What this crisis has taught us is that at the end of the day, there is no real separation between Main Street and Wall Street. There is only the road we're traveling on as Americans—and we will rise or fall on that journey as one nation, as one people." The crowd of 21,000 (19,500 or so sat under protected bleachers) responded with predictable ferocity.

About 600 miles east, in Pennsylvania, McCain was giving a very different speech. McCain moved quickly through the changes he would make, as if reading from a series of bullet points, then spent the bulk of his remarks going after Obama. He wasn't calling the audience to his vision of the future. He was poking holes in Obama's record.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, a member of the "mainstream media," looks for a hug at a McCain/Palin rally in Pennsylvania.

McCain's argument is not unreasonable: Obama has not fought his party in any major way in Washington—at any rate, not on as many issues as Sen. McCain has. That kind of political courage matters. Nor, for that matter, has Obama reached out to Republicans the way McCain has reached out to Democrats.

Still, for this moment in the campaign—for this moment in the economy—Obama's pitch feels much more suitable. It feels like a message that feeds a country starving for an optimistic path forward.

If voters wind up hearing it this way, it will be deeply vexing for the McCain campaign: It was McCain's instinct to make the identical point—about the fundamental strength of American character—as a response to the financial crisis. But he lacked the eloquence and artistry to pull it off, which left him open to criticism that he was out of touch.

The campaign in recent days has been a circus of charge and countercharge, and in many ways the Indianapolis event was no different. Obama blamed McCain for Bush's policies. He insisted that a Washington veteran couldn't change Washington institutions.

But the overall message was more than the sum of these exaggerations. Obama's mere presence in Indianapolis, in fact, was a powerful message in itself. A Democratic candidate has not won the state since 1964. Obama, who narrowly lost the Democratic primary here, is now in a statistical dead heat with McCain. As Obama heads into the final weeks of the campaign, everything seems to be going his way—even the weather in Indianapolis. By the time Obama left the state fairgrounds, the rain had stopped, the clouds had parted, and the sun had come out.

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