CHICAGO — The “hopemonger” is gone.
Barack Obama sounds more like a man trying to shake a rain cloud these days, dispensing a teeth-clenching, I-get-your-pain stump speech in town after town that offers only snippets of the unbridled optimism that long permeated his campaign pitch.
Beginning in the days before his party's convention, the inspirational has given way to the traditional: attacks on John McCain, a register of policy prescriptions and partisan language with the sting of a needle.
Over the summer, Obama would often simply say that he and McCain “fundamentally disagree” on key issues. In New Hampshire on Saturday, Obama said the Arizona senator “doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know what is going on your lives. He is out of touch with the American people.”
The poetic defenses of hope, the playful jokes about being a distant relative of Vice President Cheney and the glancing attention to policy have been replaced by an emphasis on economic fears — an issue-by-issue argument of why the American dream is slipping away and the Republican ticket has no plan to rescue it. He furrows his brow, wags his finger and broadcasts exasperation at the idea that a 26-year veteran of Washington is co-opting his mantra of change.
The Obama campaign has even replaced the wistful slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” with the more imperative “Change We Need.”
If stump speeches, and their changes over time, are windows into the state of a race and the mind of a candidate, Obama is trying to rhetorically shake sense into voters who have been slipping away from him. When speaking of his opponent, he sometimes ends sentences with “heh!” as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
“Let’s be absolutely clear about what change means,” Obama said Saturday in Manchester, N.H. “Change isn’t just a word. Let’s describe specifically what change is.”
Without flourishes, Obama details his plans in mostly pocketbook terms — saying they would cut taxes for 95 percent of working Americans, expand access to health care, offer tax credits to college students in exchange for public service and redirect money spent on the Iraq war into infrastructure projects at home and eliminate dependence on foreign oil within 10 years — while contrasting himself with McCain at every turn.
He circles back to make his point again, just in case listeners didn’t get it the first time around: “So let’s just remember what change is. John McCain’s basic message to you is: ‘Watch out, George Bush, with the exception of economic policy, tax policy, health care policy, education policy and foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics, we are really going to shake things up in Washington.’”
While an Obama campaign memo Friday pledged to respond to GOP attacks with “speed and ferocity” — seemingly signaling a new and tougher approach from Obama himself in the coming days — the Democratic nominee has been sharpening his attacks for weeks. Similar to his strategy in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, Obama has been testing lines as he moves toward delivering a “final argument” speech to general election voters.
Yet Democrats haven’t hidden their anxiety.
“You assured voters in New Hampshire, as well as the rest of the country, that you would not tolerate the Republican attack ads and smear campaign that has come to really dominate politics,” doctoral student Glenn Grasso, 39, told Obama at a town hall meeting last week in Concord. “So for those of us who have given you our support and more importantly our money, when and how are you going to start fighting back?”
Acknowledging that some of his supporters were nervous, Obama responded that he was hitting hard but that he would not get into the mud.
His answer reflected the balancing act of a candidate who rose to prominence touting apolitical governing but who is now wading through the sludge of a political campaign, potentially risking his brand as a new sort of politician with each harsh assessment of McCain. Lately, Obama aides have appeared determined to get under McCain's skin by using words that evoke military service to question his campaign tactics, which they have described as "dishonorable" and lacking integrity.
Douglas E. Schoen, who worked as one of Bill Clinton’s lead pollsters during his 1996 reelection campaign, said the ferocity of the attacks isn’t the issue. With only seven weeks until Election Day, Schoen said, he still hasn’t heard a focused message.
“What is the core argument of this campaign?” Schoen asked Sunday. “What is the central metaphor of this election? What are they going to drive? I don’t think they have answered the question.”