A lot of people were watching the first segment in tonight's Democratic debate to see how the candidates would talk about race.  But it was an early reference to another subject entirely that caught my attention.

It came in response to the very first question from Brian Williams, when Barack Obama, describing the challenges facing America, mentioned right away that "the economy is putting an enormous strain on working families." 

That may sound like boilerplate -- and, in another context, it would be.  All Democrats say things like that.  So do most Republicans. 

But I think the prominence of that statement has significance.  For all of Obama's terrific rhetoric on the campaign trail, he hasn't done such a terrific job of connecting his movement to results. As I've written before, it's not enough simply to build a movement; you have to put that movement to good use.  Too frequently, I've heard Obama mention his policy goals -- whether it's fighting climate change, giving everybody health insurance, whatever -- as an afterthought. 

But that seems to have been changing in just the last few days.  (I noticed the same thing in the transcript of a recent Obama conference call, which unfortunately I can't track down this very second.)

That brings me to an excellent point Noam raised earlier in the day -- and the parallels with what's happening in the GOP race. Just as the struggling economy has played to Mitt Romney's strength, so it has played to Hillary Clinton's, since she's the one really focussing on policies rather than politics.  Obama has been promising to deliver a new era of American politics, while Clinton has been promising to deliver better-paying jobs and health insurance. 

But unlike McCain, who (I think) has a real problem now because economics just isn't his thing, Obama is entirely capable of delivering a strong policy message that speaks to people's financial anxiety.  It's something he knows intuitively, and personally, from his time as a community orgnaizer and representing low-income communities on the South Side of Chicago.  And it's something for which he has actual solutions, whether it's his proposals on college affordability, tax reform, or making health care more affordable.

It's just a matter of framing the argument properly.  And lately, it seems, he has been doing that. 

--Jonathan Cohn