More Money, More Problems

LOS ANGELES—Barack Obama supposedly hosted an economic town hall meeting today, but it sure didn’t seem like it. While giving a short stump speech and taking questions from the audience, he mentioned the downturn in the economy only once. To be fair, he spoke at length about the struggling middle class—but those lines are leftovers from the prerecession era of the campaign. The times demand irrational exuberance .

The problem isn’t that Obama broke his promise to talk about the economy—I doubt most of the supporters there knew or cared. It’s that the economy is the issue Obama struggles with most, yet he’s not trying to convince voters he knows how to shoot the bears and bring on the bulls.

If Obama wants to win California, he has to take care of two weaknesses: Latinos and the economy. On the latter, the latest Rasmussen tracking poll says nearly half of California Democrats think the economy is the top issue, and Clinton leads by 15 percentage points among those voters.  

Obama finally tackled the issue at the end, but only after an eighth-grader asked him, “What would you do as a president to help make the economy get better, not worse?” Obama responded, “OK, that’s a good last question.” Damn right it’s a good question. Obama answered by talking about mortgages, bankruptcy, and tax codes, and he did it pretty well. But he didn’t talk about the Fed, Wall St. , or interest rates. Instead of speaking in nitty-gritty financial terms, he reverted to stump snippets on health care and energy independence. He needs to start acting more like Hillary.

This is a problem across the board. Obama doesn’t seem to like talking about details. At the event, he threw out more policies than the crowd knew what to do with—health care, affordable housing, early childhood education, veterans care, immigration reform. Obama didn’t remember to tell people that he thought he could pay for all of these lofty programs until 45 minutes into the event. “And by the way, all these promises I’m making, I’d pay for them,” he said. “Don’t think I’m just making these loud promises. We’ve talked about how we’re going to pay for these initiatives.” Did he tell us what those measures were? No—he moved on instead.

I take Obama at his word—that he has had those discussions. (Indeed, his Web site outlines some of his planned spending.) But he has to start incorporating that wonky talk in his events. Obama doesn’t seem to trust the voters’ capacity to hear high-minded fiscal details every now and then. But if there’s anything he can learn from Hillary, it’s her ability to spew statistics without notes.  

Obama has to find a way to talk both details and big ideas, and it would be best if he could figure it out before tonight’s debate . During his answer on the economy, Obama was numbering each of his policy points before he went into why he thought they were good ideas. ( Perhaps he’s organized after all. ) Near the end of the question, he forgot whether he had already said two or three of his proposals, which led to an unintentionally telling moment. After collecting himself, Obama said, “I’m losing track. I’ve got so many good ideas.” Enough with the ideas, Barack. We want some deets .