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The Playbook

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/bill-obama.jpgPresident Bill Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (Los Alamos Labs, Joe Cummings)

He was a golden boy who seemed to have so many advantages. He attended Ivy League schools, studied abroad, married a bright, assured woman. In office was a president named Bush, dealing with an economy that had plunged, and the American public was hostile and ready to take chances. This young man was seeking the highest office.

The year was 1992. And the man was Bill Clinton. He would become the only Democrat to win two terms since Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the Great Depression and World War II.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Now, another young politician, Sen. Barack Obama, regarded by many in the same vein, confronting far, far worse economic circumstances, is seeking the White House. He could learn much from looking back to what Clinton did 16 years ago.

Obama, the Democratic nominee, needs Clinton — and not just as a surrogate. What Obama needs is the Clinton playbook — the one the young Arkansas governor used to defeat an incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, as well as the lilliputian Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.The one that centered around a singular idea. “It’s the economy, stupid!”

“Look at 1992, look at Bill Clinton,” said Dee Dee Myers, the former Clinton White House press secretary, who worked on the 1992 campaign. “No one connected with people like he did. He was a man whom people believed cared about their lives — and was willing to try and do something about their troubles or die trying. Obama has not convinced people of that.

“This is serious ground,” Myers continued. “People are are wondering what’s happening to their life savings; what happens if I lose my job; what happens to my mortgage. When people wake up to those kind of questions in the morning, it’s quite terrifying. This is a game-changing moment for Obama — where he can refocus the race about things that actually matter.”

Game-changing could be an understatement. The financial world looks to be crumbling, the fortunes of many dwindling because of predatory loans. People are being forced from homes they once owned. Surfing the Net, reading the paper, watching the news, one cannot help but think of William Butler Yeats, whose falcon could no longer hear the falconer, whose center could not hold.

One would think that, with the Palinpalooza about the running mate of the Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, over and financial markets collapsing, it would be Obama’s time to set the course. Yet polls have shown McCain and Obama still in a statistical dead heat in battleground states like Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. McCain seems to have recovered from his gaffe on Monday — when he told the crowd that the “fundamentals” of the economy were sound.

Meanwhile Obama has used the opening to attack his opponent effectively. But he has fallen short in projecting an image of an economic crusader — a man who can deliver something better. Whatever your feelings about how Clinton ran that campaign, the fact is that it overcame obstacles that would have derailed any other effort — just ask former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart — to take the presidency back for the Democrats after 12 years of Republican rule.

Of course, Obama is not Bubba. They simply have two different styles and skill sets. Clinton has a folksy charm that lulls you into a kind of trance as he talks about policy and free trade. He conveys an ultimate understanding — looks you in the eye when talking to you, lowering his head, with a trick of seeming to absorb your whole world view.

Obama is a different sort of master politician, He is fiery, but with a precision that cuts straight to the heart. His voice always remains at a steady pitch, speaking with the same vocabulary in person that he uses to a crowd of 20,000 people. Like people once said of Clinton, I’ve often told friends that if you were to sit down with Obama, you couldn’t walk away without wanting to vote for hum.

Indeed, the two have more in common than one might think. Consider that Clinton, when governor, entered the race as a man with what seemed an elite pedigree along the lines of Obama. He had gone to Georgetown and Yale Law School. For Christ sakes he was the Rhodes Scholar who didn’t inhale. In an nation where we look down at all that schoolin’, Clinton seemed like easy pickings in the primary and toast in the general campaign.

But then Clinton started to feel people’s pain. Or at he least looked and talked like he did. Like McCain, then-president Bush was a man who seemed disconnected and aloof from everyday problems. Yes, Bush had won a war, but he seemed to marvel at the technology of a grocery store scanner. And, by 1992, dusk had fallen on the economy and Bush was a man in the cross-hairs. As Obama must do now, Clinton took advantage of the economic turmoil that surrounded him.

“I don’t think it’s quite apples to apples,” said Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon. “But certainly the economy, like then is the biggest issue right now and the biggest lesson Obama can learn from then is essentially Campaign 101: Stay on message. For Clinton in 1992 it came down to having everything revolve around the economy. Was ‘It’s the economy stupid,’ boiling down a set of complex issues to something incredibly simple? Yes. Did it work? Yes. They need to stay on message and so far they’ve sucked at it.

“How come I don’t know anything about his economic plan,” Chadderdon said of Obama. “I was on Fox News yesterday and all the other side was saying was ‘Obama’s going to raise taxes.’ My understanding is that he’s just going to raise taxes for the super-wealthy and big corporations whose greed got us into this.

“What people need is someone who they think will fight for them,” Chaddredon said, “He needs to become the champion of little people, the person whom they feel actually cares. ‘Ike’ and the news off Wall Street have gotten Sarah Palin off the front page, where she doesn’t belong. I would be frankly disappointed if he wastes this opportunity.”

Easier said than done. Consider that Perot’s presence in the 1992 race drew 18.8 percent of the popular vote. His candidacy enabled fiscally conservative Republicans to find a champion other than Bush, whom they never forgave for going back on his “No new taxes” pledge. But, as I’ve written countless times, Obama is not running against the incumbent president. He’s running against the supposed maverick in McCain.

Moreover, no matter how much the Obama campaign wants to deflect the issue of experience, the truth is that he is still green. Clinton had served multiple terms in the governor’s office and had been a force in the Democratic Party for more than a decade. Obama, on the other hand, has a resume based largely in the state Senate, not even a full term in the U.S. Senate and a remarkable speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention.

“Bill Clinton had gravitas,” said Ed Rollins, the Republican campaign consultant who served as Ronald Reagan’s national campaign director in 1984 and was, more recently, the national campaign chairman for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in his run for the GOP nomination. “Obama doesn’t have that experience. He has to show that he has the credentials not only to be commander in chief but the economist in chief. There’s still an uncertainty about him.

“The best news for him is it’s still a dead even race,” Rollins conceded. “He has a tremendous opportunity to pick up the ball and run with it. It’s the first week of this disaster. This is what’s significant right now. It’s not about the war or health care anymore. It’s proving they have the right economic plan or that they have the right people surrounding him to make the right decisions for the economy.”

It seems strange that a man who captivated so many people can seem so distant to others. You know, he gets economic hardship. Like Clinton, he lived through it, struggling to find his place in the world under the guidance of a single mother. Obama was raised with the help of food stamps, and saw first-hand what happened when the working-class postwar era fell prey to a world that had changed and moved on without them.

Maybe it’s the translation. Watching Obama, as I have, in settings large and small, one comes away with a clear idea of what his economic plan would be. Lower taxes for middle-income Americans. Higher taxes for individuals of great wealth and corporations. Laws put in place to discourage companies from sending their manufacturing jobs overseas. Tax credits that would help young men and women pay for college in exchange for national service.

The problem, however, is that these are speeches that most Americans don’t see when an event is transmitted over television. While it’s cliche to say we’re a soundbite society, the truth is we are. And the soundbites used are not about tax credits. Add to that, the image many Americans have of Obama of a man standing before 200,000 people in Berlin or 75,000 in Denver. To reach people the way Clinton did is to shrink the size of those crowds, to show Obama one-on-one with the kinds of ordinary folk that helped him cruise to his Senate victory four years ago.

“He’s just got to connect to middle America,” Myers said. “I recently saw a commercial about his grandmother that talked about equal pay for equal work. Things like that help. Clinton did a good job of that. He’s got to be able to answer what are three things that’s different in his economic plan that’s different than Bush. He has to make that clear.

“The problem he has are with women between the age of 50-to-65 and he’s terrible with non-college educated white men,” Myers said. “Hillary Clinton was visiting these people relentlessly and she kicked his ass with those people. He’s got to be able to deliver more of a meat-and-potatoes message to these voters because they’re the ones who are most insecure.”

But if any one person could take the 1992 Clinton doctrine of empathy and relatability, of voting for ‘a different kind of Democrat,’ it is Obama. As much as the Republicans like to scoff at his academic achievements, as someone whose spent a good deal of time around him I can say his intelligence and grasp for what is best needed at the moment at hand is uncanny.

He can be the man, standing before thousands, who can deliver hope and inspiration. But he can also, with great ease, sit with a small group of women to talk about equal opportunities in New Mexico or flip burgers in the rain in southern Missouri. Perhaps the one thing he can take from that Clinton campaign is to convey the sense that here is a man who not only understands me, but that this man is somehow special,and that not voting for him would be passing on something quite spectacular.

“I used to say that there were only two people who when you met them was a one-of-a-kind experience,” said Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel for the Clinton White House between 1996-1998 and who has been a close friend of the Clintons for nearly 40 years. “That was Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama is the third. All during the primaries I kept hoping he was not authentic and I certainly made my fair share of comments about him. But now I admit that was wishful thinking. I was wrong. He is authentic and he is the real deal.

“He can do nothing else but be himself,” Davis said. “The image makers are going to try and make him do this and that and that’s a losing battle. Barack Obama is passionate and cerebral and charismatic and that’s the person he needs to show us going forward.”

With less than 50 days left in the election, we will see if he is able to do that difficult task: show himself as someone who understands the dark struggles that lay ahead of us, while offering up an image of someone capable of lifting the nation out of wherever it is that we have fallen.

The relationship between Obama and Clinton may never be fully repaired — given all the bombs lobbed between the two during that never-ending primary season. But at least Obama has a winning playbook he can draw from, one that’s simple in its design.

Now its up to him to use it. It’s not enough to know the plays. It’s the execution, stupid!

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