After the Big Think

What Barack Obama learned on his vacation.

Barack Obama in Hawaii. Click image to expand.
Obama on vacation

During Barack Obama’s vacation, we got a chance to see him eat shave ice with his daughters, play golf and body surf. But did he get a chance to think? Did he reacquaint himself with the “big picture” he worried he’d lost on the campaign trail? In short, did he heed this wise advice?

The short answer is, I don’t know—especially to that last question. But I have discovered a few things about what he appears to have learned while on vacation.

1.Keep it big: According to aides, Obama returned from Hawaii resolved to put even more emphasis on an earlier theme: This is a turning-point election. Big issues are at stake. By stressing the enormity of the problems the nation faces, Obama hopes to show Americans that he understands how unhappy they are with the country’s direction. But he also hopes to rebuild an appetite for change, the strongest element of his brand. Only through a wholesale rethinking of the current political system—a rethinking that Obama has promised—can such large problems be solved. One of the campaign’s main messages has always been “change vs. more of the same.” Now we’re going to hear it even more.

2.Show them how you feel: Speaking in Albuquerque, N.M., Monday about equal pay for women, Obama said that he didn’t want his daughters “to ever confront a situation where they are disadvantaged because of their gender. The thought of it makes my blood boil.” Really? Perhaps he watched Jack Cafferty while on vacation, because that’s not the way the senator usually speaks, and you won’t find that kind of language on his Web site. When he’s spoken about pay equity before, he’s mentioned his daughters, but he hasn’t reached even a simmer.

This little rhetorical flash of passion connected with something I’ve been hearing from Obama aides lately. One of the challenges for the Obama campaign is showing that a man of his unusual background shares the values and concerns of “regular Americans.” (Mark Penn focused on this difficulty in his famous strategy memo that argued Obama wasn’t “fundamentally American.”) The campaign has tried various ways to show Obama’s core. They’ve used ads in which he’s said the word “values” a lot, and they’ve highlighted his biography.

But talking about the temperature of his blood is a whole new way for Obama to connect with voters. He’s showing that he can get emotional about the same things everybody gets emotional about. He’s not just saying he’s going to solve their problems, he’s showing voters he’s as impatient with them as they are. It’s a quality he wants in his vice president, too. “I want somebody who is mad right now, that people are losing their jobs,” Obama said Tuesday in North Carolina, “mad right now that people have seen their incomes decline.” Says a senior Obama aide:“The values argument is best conveyed by showing people what he’ll fight for.” If the strategy sounds familiar, that’s because Hillary used it, too.

3.Stay in McCain’s face: Obama has been going after John McCain since before he won the Democratic nomination. It was, for a time, part of the compulsory primary exercises to show that he was tough enough to handle the Democratic nomination. Before he left for vacation, he was hitting McCain on energy policy and, more pointedly, suggesting that McCain was trying to use his race against him.

But in the last few days he’s made his attacks even sharper, emphasizing the link between McCain and Bush and portraying McCain as a poll-driven Washington insider out of touch with regular people. In perhaps the most aggressive attack on his opponent’s values, he raised questions about McCain’s honor. “I have never suggested, and never will, that Sen. McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition,” he said. “I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America’s national interest. Now, it’s time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same.”

Barack Obama probably won’t get another chance to have a big think until his next vacation. Then he’ll either be resigning himself to a few more years as a book-writing senator or puzzling over how to set the course for the most powerful nation on the planet.