Obama's Hanging Curve

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Oct. 7 2008 9:02 PM

Obama's Hanging Curve

Did Obama miss the best pitch he's going to see in this debate? The second question , from a man named Oliver Clark, asked the candidates: "Well, senators, through this economic crisis, most of the people that I know have had a difficult time. And through this bailout package, I was wondering what it is that's going to actually help those people out."

McCain responded first, giving an airy answer about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac institutions, he suggested, the questioner "may never even have heard of ... before this crisis" and taking a snipe at Obama for his contributions from those institutions. At this point, the moment felt eerily analogous to the most famous question from the 1992 town hall debate below, in which a young woman asked the three candidates how the national debt had personally affected them. (She probably meant the recession.) George H.W. Bush's response (about 20 seconds into the video) was muddled and aloof, and Bill Clinton pounced on the opportunity to give a personal, compassionate-sounding response (2:30 in the video). The exchange was instant presidential-debate lore.

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As Jack Shafer wrote in Slate today, Clinton's '92 playbook has more than a few valuable pages in it, and Obama's answer hardly lived up. After a mini economics lesson about frozen credit markets and their effect on business, he flipped the question into an attack on McCain's support for deregulation. The man-of-the-people card may not be Obama's strong point, but one can't help feel that he missed an essential opportunity to connect with voters. 

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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