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Obama Throws Punches--but Will They Hurt?

Barack Obama is getting feisty. On Monday, as Karen Tumulty reports, he went after John McCain hard on the economy:

Where he would rarely even mention McCain in the past, Obama now openly mocks him. McCain boasts of putting country first, Obama said, "but I have to say, it's not an example of putting country first when you say George Bush's economic policies have shown 'great progress.' " As for McCain's contention that Obama would be an "economic disaster," Obama retorted, "Mr. McCain, let me explain to you. The economic disaster is happening right now. Maybe you haven't noticed."

There is also a more populist tinge to Obama's message, as he tries to draw a clearer and more detailed distinction between his policies and McCain's, particularly on taxes. McCain, he says, is promoting "$300 billion worth of tax breaks for the same folks who've been getting tax breaks under George Bush." And he told the crowd that a top McCain economic adviser (a reference to comments by former Senator Phil Gramm) "is calling you whiners. ...This guy obviously doesn't pump his own gas. He obviously doesn't do his own shopping. He's obviously not paying his own bills."

It's precisely the kind of aggressive approach many observers (myself included) have been waiting, anxiously, for Obama to adopt. But is it enough? The Guardian's Michael Tomasky--writing at his new blog, which I recommend bookmarking--remains concerned:

Look at Obama's attacks ... they're about McCain's policy positions. They're pretty good and effective, and attacks like them might prove to be enough this year, given the state of the economy and world and general lack of enthusiasm for McCain that's afoot. But they don't go right at the guy. The only character attack above is directed at someone who is now a former McCain adviser.

The McCain attacks, by contrast, are almost all aimed at character. Obama's a celebrity, he's like Britney, he's a lightweight, he's a hypocrite and so on. They throw in some policy stuff for good measure – he's gonna raise your taxes, he's to blame for high gas prices. But the gist of the GOP strategy is to turn the other guy into a person that most Americans just wouldn't want to have as president. ...

In general: Democrats try to turn the Republican into someone you disagree with on the issues. Republicans try to turn the Democrat into someone you wouldn't want to live on your street or let near your children. Is it any wonder the latter is more effective?

Tomasky doesn't want Obama, or the Democrats, to abandon issue contrast. But, if I understand him correctly, he does want to make them secondary to character attacks. Instead of talking tax policy, why not hammer away at the fact that McCain wears $520 shoes, owns between seven and ten homes, or thinks that you need to make $5 million a year to be "rich"?

Fine--that can all be part of the attack. But I hope the Obama campaign realizes it can--and should--be doing a lot more with the issues, too. It's just a matter of framing policy discussions in ways that make an emotional impact. Talking about who benefits from McCain's tax breaks is all well and good. But how about hammering home the fact that McCain believes in cutting and/or gutting Social Security? Why not warn people that McCain's health plan could mean millions of people with job-based insurance lose their coverage, leaving those with pre-existing medical conditions exposed to tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses

I'm no strategist. But attacks like those, combined with a portrayal of McCain as out of touch, might prove pretty devastating.   

--Jonathan Cohn