Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008 | 2 a.m.
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Sen. Barack Obama spoke at the Doolittle Community Center about a year ago, and the working class crowd began streaming out before he was even finished.
This was just after Sen. Hillary Clinton ran the table on the Sunday talk shows, and Obama’s campaign seemed like a well-intentioned lark.
His key problem a year ago, and one he explicitly — if clumsily — tried to confront that day at Doolittle, was connecting with working-class voters on the bread and on the butter: jobs, home values, health insurance.
He was the dreaded “wine-track” candidate, the hero of arugula eaters and Volvo drivers.
What a difference a year makes.
After a grueling Democratic primary season during which Obama was forced to learn how to communicate economic empathy and anger, the junior senator from Illinois has settled into his role as a champion of the working class.
This Obama was on full display during rallies Saturday that drew thousands in both Reno and at Bonanza High School.
The economy has collapsed, both here and nationally, and Obama has been well positioned to scoop up voters looking for a more activist government to lend them a hand, and stick it to the rich guys a little in the offing.
“We need policies that grow our economy from the bottom up, so that every American, everywhere, has the chance to get ahead,” Obama said. “Not just the folks who own the casinos but the folks who are serving in the casinos. Because if we’ve learned anything from this economic crisis, it’s that we’re all connected; we’re all in this together; and we will rise or fall as one nation — as one people.”
That was the high-minded stuff, but Obama also seemed practically giddy delivering a series of blows right to the Republican kidney — a failing economy, the blame for which voters are placing squarely on the GOP from top to bottom.
“At this rate, the question isn’t just ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ it’s ‘Are you better off than you were four weeks ago?’ ”
Obama used a similar message earlier Saturday at the UNR baseball stadium in Reno, repeating the phrase “middle class,” “middle class,” “middle class.”
The campaign of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has done its best to claim the mantle of the working and middle classes, using an Ohio plumber as a symbol of defiance against Obama’s economic policies, which they say are “socialist.”
Rick Gorka, a McCain spokesman, said in an e-mail: “Barack Obama brought his ever evolving campaign to Las Vegas today where he continued to promote his plan to raise taxes on ‘Joe the Plumber’ ...”
This battle for the middle class is especially acute in Nevada, where Obama is trying for a Western trifecta, having run up comfortable leads in Colorado and New Mexico. Polls here give him a slim, statistically insignificant lead, though early voting totals — thus far favoring Democrats — have astounded Nevada political veterans. In his 19th — and likely final — trip to Nevada since the campaign began 18 long months ago Obama told voters in Reno and Las Vegas to vote early.
Obama’s line of attack isn’t particularly novel, but it is brutal in a time of economic distress, joblessness, rising health care costs and depressed home values.
“When it comes to the policies that matter for middle-class families, there’s not an inch of daylight between George Bush and John McCain,” Obama said in Las Vegas.
He began a refrain: “Like George Bush, John McCain wants to ...”
What followed were attacks on Bush/McCain for trying to privatize Social Security; giving tax breaks to oil companies and corporations that ship jobs overseas; and proposing to tax health care benefits.
And finally: “I think we’ve had enough of the Bush-McCain economics.”
He said the Wall Street bailout was the first step to economic recovery but added the country needs an “immediate rescue plan.”
Obama proposed a jobs tax credit for each new employee companies hire, eliminating capital gains taxes for small businesses, giving emergency loans to struggling businesses and enacting a three-month moratorium on home foreclosures.
He also pledged to cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. To illustrate his point, he asked those in the audience making less than $250,000 a year to raise their hands. Nearly everyone did. (He’s promised to increase taxes on families making more than $250,000, and cut them for everyone else.)
Obama also has a proposal for near-universal health insurance and $15 billion a year in research and development for renewable energy.
Given the tough economic times, the wars and the immediate cost of the Wall Street bailout/rescue, achieving all these will be difficult, if not impossible.
McCain has called for making the Bush tax cuts — which he originally voted against and are going to sunset — permanent. He’s also called for cutting corporate taxes, phasing out the alternative minimum tax and doubling the value of exemptions for each dependent to $7,000.
McCain has also vowed to cut government spending by eliminating earmarks, though they make up a tiny percentage of federal spending, which is dominated by defense, Social Security, Medicare and interest on debt.
McCain knows he’s saddled with the Bush legacy, which is why he’s unleashed tough attacks on his own president in recent days.
But Obama is allowing no space between Bush and McCain. “I can take ten more days of John McCain’s attacks, but the American people can’t take four more years of the same failed policies and the same failed politics. We’re not going to let George Bush pass the torch to John McCain. It’s time for change.”
David McGrath Schwartz reported from Reno.