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Obama's Emerging Economic Message

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) shakes hands with supporters during a town hall meeting at the Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pa., on April 9, 2008. (Reuters)

By Shailagh Murray
MALVERN, Pa. -- Sen. Barack Obama took aim at both political parties for lacking an economic vision to lead the country into a more prosperous era, decrying the "Bush-Cheney-McCain" principle of "you're on your own," rather than "we're all in this together."

Obama even ventured into the Democratic forbidden zone by indirectly paying heed to former president Ronald Reagan and his low-tax, small-government agenda. "The changes to our economy that began in the 1980s were in response to policies that needed to change," he told a cheering crowd of 1,400 people. "The high taxes and outmoded regulations of the New Deal did need to be reformed for our changing times."

The Illinois senator returned to Pennsylvania today after attending a Senate hearing on Iraq. But he only briefly mentioned the war and Gen. David H. Petraeus's testimony, before launching into extended remarks that sought to fuse a laundry list of economic policy proposals, many on the table for months, to his broader post-partisan governing philosophy. Although the crowd today was mostly middle-class and suburban, Obama's main focus between now and May 6 will be winning over blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania and Indiana. As his recent loss in Ohio attested, they have proven his toughest converts.

To win them over, Obama has sought to develop an economic message that underscores his broader call for change, but also reflects working-class pocketbook concerns, from gas prices to declining wages. It has been an erratic, sometimes clumsy process, with blocks of new text dropped into a free-flowing and high-minded stump speech, as conspicuous as weeds.

This morning, Obama scrapped most of his standard lines and spent 20 minutes outlining an economic agenda aimed at creating "a common stake in each other's prosperity."

"Under George Bush, we've seen tax cut after tax cut for the wealthiest Americans who don't need them and didn't ask for them," he said. "This philosophy has been neither compassionate nor conservative, as we've run up hundreds of millions in deficits, and trillions of dollars in debt. And we've turned our back on working people without health care, and families who are losing their homes, and retirees who've lost their pensions. Instead of a level playing field for all Americans, we've let special interests tilt the scales in Washington."

The policies, he said, have led to income inequality, boom and bust cycles like the current housing-market crisis, job outsourcing and income stagnation. "And that is why there will be a very clear choice in this election," Obama said.

"We know that government cannot solve all of our problems, and we don't expect it to," he told the crowd. "We don't want our tax dollars wasted on programs that don't work or perks for special interests that don't work for us. We understand that we cannot stop every job from going overseas or build a wall around our economy, and we know that we shouldn't."

Ignoring his current rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (whom he mentioned just once in the course of an hour, in an entirely different context), Obama asserted, "If you believe that our economy's on the right path, then John McCain's the candidate for you."

Recalling the Arizona Republican's original opposition to the Bush tax cuts, Obama said, "I admired Senator McCain when he stood up and said that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans offended his 'conscience.' But he got over that, and now he's all for them, and for continuing to do the same things that have taken us toward recession."

Obama said the broad goals of his "new direction" would include paying down the national debt, narrowing the income divide (in part by raising taxes on wealthy people), and minimizing the role of special interests in the legislative process. "We believe in the fundamental ideal that has always been at the heart of this nation's progress -- that I am my brother's keeper, that I am my sister's keeper, that we all have a stake in our common prosperity," he said.

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 9, 2008; 3:04 PM ET
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