TERRE HAUTE, Ind.—His shirtsleeves are rolled up higher, his tone is a bit more biting. Stirring up supporters at a fairgrounds show barn here with a sharp critique of John McCain, Barack Obama looks and sounds like a candidate who realizes time is running out.
With an expiration date in sight on a presidential campaign that once seemed interminable, Obama enters the final 58 days with the polls tight, his opponents appropriating his mantra of change, and the political deck reshuffled with a new wild card in the first female Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin.
Obama arrived in this battleground state Saturday with a renewed urgency and a modified stump speech, delivering his most unforgiving assessment of his challengers since the Democratic National Convention, when the Illinois senator began lambasting McCain as someone who “doesn’t get it.”
And after days of tiptoeing around Palin, Obama even took his first direct swipe at the Alaska governor: “I know the governor of Alaska has been, you know, saying she is change,” Obama said at a town hall here. “But when you (have) been taking all these earmarks when it is convenient and then suddenly you are the champion anti-earmark person. That is not change, come on. I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”
The increasingly harsh appraisals fill out the tableau of a nominee almost singularly focused on the economy in the post-convention phase of the campaign. Obama has spent most of the week since accepting his party’s nomination in Rust Belt states, appearing on factory floors, talking up his vision of a new economy and casting McCain as out of touch with working families and a clone of President Bush.
The economy “will dominate both our schedule and our speeches in every appearance we make now through Election Day,” Obama senior strategist Robert Gibbs said.
Honing an “us-versus-them” battle cry, Obama is positioning himself as the champion of the working class. Venturing into towns and counties in the past week that Hillary Rodham Clinton carried by 2-to-1 margins in the Democratic primary, Obama could sound strikingly similar to his one-time rival.
“They haven’t spent any time talking about problems that ordinary Americans are going through every single day,” Obama said last week in York, Pa., echoing a theme repeated throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan. “Not a word about how we are going to make college more affordable, how we are going to create more jobs here in the United States. Not a word about how to increase people’s incomes.
The focus on the economy comes as the country’s jobless rate has just hit a five-year high and home foreclosures have jumped to record levels. At a press conference Saturday, Obama renewed his call for lawmakers to approve a second economic stimulus package, and argued that any government bailout of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—widely reported to be imminent—must put the interests of taxpayers first.
“Any action we take must be focused not on the whims of lobbyists and special interests worried about their bonuses and hourly fees, but on whether it will strengthen our economy and help struggling homeowners,” Obama told reporters after the forum here.
Once dominant in political debate, the Iraq war is practically a footnote on the campaign trail, raised near the end of Obama’s speech and linked to his economic message: If the government wasn’t spending so much money in Iraq, more would be available for veterans’ care and other domestic needs.
Obama concentrated his time last week in states with struggling economies, and will return this week to Michigan and Ohio—two rustbelt swing states essential to a winning the electoral map, and newly receptive to his economic message as the economic outlook appers to worsen.
Continuing to eschew the arena rallies that marked his primary campaign, Obama appears in small settings, usually at a workplace where he can tell a story about the economy, aides said. Wearing safety goggles, he tours a factory floor in what amounts to a photo opportunity before sitting down with employees in public town hall settings.
On Saturday, standing on a show barn floor layered with hay, Obama feigned disbelief as he railed against McCain for telling Republican convention delegates last week that “change is coming” to Washington.
“Now think about this coming from the party that’s been in charge for 8 years, they’ve been running the show,” Obama said. “John McCain brags, ‘90% of the time I have voted with George Bush. He and I, we were right there’ and suddenly he’s the change agent. Hah!
“What are these guys talking about?” Obama asked near the end of his riff. “Do you think we haven’t been paying attention over the past 8 years?”
Gibbs said voters will continue to hear this message for days, if not weeks, to come.