I've never been a huge fan of "change" as a campaign slogan, just because it's so unspecific. What kind of change? On whose behalf? And while I think the slogan worked well enough in the Democratic primaries, that's because Obama was running against an opponent whom so many voters already identified the past (for better and for worse). The trouble with "change" as a general election theme is that John McCain can lay claim to that mantle, too. It may be a dishonest claim, given his recent history of supporting President Bush and his advocacy of policies that further the traditional Republican agenda. But it's a claim many voters are prepared to accept.
The way out of this, I've always thought, is to make the claim more concrete. Obama needs to remind voters that change is more than an attitude. It's a set of priorities for what our society should look like--and what role the government should play in realizing those priorites. At a time when Americans are rightly anxious about the economy, Obama needs to make sure voters understand that he and McCain have sharp differences: They disagree about the problem and the solution.
Fortunately, Obama is doing that right now via his number one surrogate, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden.
As I type this, Biden is speaking in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. In the prepared text, Biden starts by praising McCain as a friend. But, from there, he attacks McCain for his embrace of Bush--and for his embrace of policies that would, if anything, make Americans even more insecure financially.
McCain's support for Social Security privatization and a weakening of health insurance, his opposition to minimum wage increases and unemployment retraining, it's all in the speech. But the broader theme is McCain's failure even to grasp the struggles most Americans face:
What is John’s response to the state of the economy? Let me quote him: “A lot of this is psychological.” Let me tell you something: Losing your job is more than a state of mind.
It means staring at the ceiling at night thinking that you may lose your house because you can’t get next month’s mortgage payment. It means looking at your pregnant wife and not knowing how you’re going to come up with the money to pay for the delivery of your child, since you don’t have health care anymore. It means looking at your child when they come home from college at Christmas and saying “Honey, I’m sorry, we’re not going to be able to send you back next semester.” It’s not a state of mind. It’s a loss of dignity.
There's also this passage, taken directly from McCain's comments this morning:
And then, for the last section, Biden pivots to explain the alternative:
Barack Obama believes that progress in this country is measured by how many people have a decent job where they’re shown respect. How many people can pay their mortgage. How many people can turn their ideas into a new business. How many people can turn to their kids and say “It’s going to be okay” with the knowledge that the opportunities they give will be better than the ones they received.
That’s the American dream. That’s what the people in my neighborhood grew up believing. And I want our kids to have the same dream.
Barack Obama starts from that vision of progress and will do what it takes to get us there.
That’s why his tax cuts - benefit the middle class. That’s why he’ll make it easier for families to afford college for their kids. That’s why he says everyone should be able to have the same health care that members of Congress have. That’s why his energy plan will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, bring down gas prices, and, in the process, we’ll create five million new green jobs. Those are the changes we need.
Yes, this campaign is about change, but it’s about even more than that. It’s about what we value as a people. It’s not just about a job, it’s about dignity. It’s not just about a paycheck. It’s about pride. It’s not just about opportunity. It’s about respect. That’s why Barack and I are in this race.
We know we need change if we’re to restore dignity, pride, and respect. We know America’s best days are ahead of us, and we know why we’re here.
We’re here for the for the cops and firefighters, the teachers and assembly line workers, the engineers and office workers, the small business owners and the retiree.
All of the folks who play by the rules, work hard, and do what is asked of them. They deserve a government as good and an economy as strong as they are.
The speech is substantively correct--and, I think, poiltically savvy as well.
Update: Here's Obama today, making the same points from Colorado:
It’s not that I think John McCain doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of most Americans. I just think doesn’t know. He doesn’t get what’s happening between the mountain in Sedona where he lives and the corridors of Washington where he works. ... Why else would he say, today, of all days--just a few hours ago--that the fundamentals of the economy are still strong?
Senator--what economy are you talking about?
What’s more fundamental than the ability to find a job that pays the bills and can raise a family? What’s more fundamental than knowing that your life savings is secure, and that you can retire with dignity? What’s more fundamental than knowing that you’ll have a roof over your head at the end of the day? What’s more fundamental than that?
The fundamentals we use to measure economic strength are whether we are living up to that fundamental promise that has made this country great--that promise that America is the place where you can make it if you try--a promise that is the only reason that we are standing here today.