Obama's Voice, Edwards's Message

In watching Barack Obama make big inroads into every major Democratic constituency, let's pause a moment to credit the field's third man, former senator John Edwards, now out of the race.

Edwards was the toughest and earliest on the pocketbook issues that Obama is just now getting serious about. If Obama is to persuade the one remaining skeptical constituency - working-class voters in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania - he will have to get even more explicit about Edwards-type issues. But in the end, Obama could be a far more effective bearer of the Edwards message than Edwards himself.Though his message was potent, Edwards's rhetoric was sometimes too hot. "Corporate greed," an Edwards favorite, did not resonate with most Americans. To some, his own lifestyle choices - the haircut, the mansion, the prior consulting for a hedge fund - seemed to undercut the message.

And Edwards sometimes emphasized the very poor rather than the broad nonrich electorate. But Edwards deserves thanks for putting pocketbook issues front and center in the Democratic campaign. Obama is now talking more like Edwards. Some of his key advisers have been working with Obama's campaign, though Edwards himself is keeping his powder dry. Obama has been criticized by pundits for being too vague and generic. "Yes We Can" is an impressive declaration of hope and change, but it is hardly a political program.

For a time it appeared that Obama was the classic "outsider" candidate, like former senators Gary Hart or Paul Tsongas, idealists who usually fell just short. The early Obama coalition included well-educated whites, a bare majority of blacks, independents, and young people. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was winning the Democratic workaday voter.

Yet Obama evidently knew something that the cynics missed. By introducing himself to a broad public as a candidate of ideals and generational change, he attracted wide support on the basis of character and leadership - and still left himself room to fill in the details later.

In Tuesday's primaries, exit polls suggested impressive gains with every demographic category - lower-income whites, the elderly, rural voters, Hispanic voters - that had been more strongly for Clinton. Now, as he moves toward heartland states where he has to engage pocketbook concerns directly, Obama seems to be taking a page from the Edwards playbook.

Tuesday night in Madison, Wis., Obama offered his usual generic themes of hope and change, but he was also quite pointed in defining what he meant. The American dream, he said, is "the dream of the senior I met who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt. He doesn't need bankruptcy laws that protect banks and big lenders. He needs us to protect pensions, not CEO bonuses."

In crediting Senator John McCain's service to the country, Obama declared, "I admired Senator McCain when he stood up and said that it offended his 'conscience' to support the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in a time of war; that he couldn't support a tax cut where 'so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate.' But somewhere along the road to the Republican nomination, the Straight Talk Express lost its wheels, because now he's all for them. Well I'm not. We can't keep spending money that we don't have in a war that we shouldn't have fought. We can't keep driving a wider and wider gap between the few who are rich and the rest who struggle to keep pace."

And on Wednesday, unveiling an explicit and far-reaching economic program at a GM plant in Janesville, Wis., Obama declared, "The fallout from the housing crisis that's cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle" but of policy made in Washington and on Wall Street.

This is strong stuff. Coming from Edwards, similar words were often criticized as divisively populist. But Obama manages to be a unifier - yet around a very progressive critique of what ails America.

A great leader gets the music right as well as the words. It took a little while, but Obama now does both. He has the campaign's poetry, leaving Clinton with the prose.

A century ago, in the great textile strike of 1912 in Lawrence, the women mill workers insisted, "Give us bread, but give us roses." If Obama wins, the one-time community organizer will have deftly offered Americans both the roses and the bread.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His new book is "The Squandering of America."

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