The economy and the campaigns

When I read this piece of a few days ago by Michael Barone, arguing that "the old rule that economic distress moves voters toward Democrats doesn't seem to be operating," I found it somewhat persuasive. He argued that blame for the crisis cannot easily be pinned on Republicans alone, and that voters may fear that taxes will rise faster under Obama than they would under McCain (regardless of the fact that Obama is promising more tax relief for most Americans than McCain), which in turn would be more bad news for the economy. But a new poll this morning seems to say otherwise.

Turmoil in the financial industry and growing pessimism about the economy have altered the shape of the presidential race, giving Democratic nominee Barack Obama the first clear lead of the general-election campaign over Republican John McCain, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national poll.

Just 9 percent of those surveyed rated the economy as good or excellent, the first time that number has been in single digits since the days just before the 1992 election. Just 14 percent said the country is heading in the right direction, equaling the record low on that question in polls dating back to 1973.

More voters trust Obama to deal with the economy, and he currently has a big edge as the candidate who is more in tune with the economic problems Americans now face. He also has a double-digit advantage on handling the current problems on Wall Street, and as a result, there has been a rise in his overall support. The poll found that, among likely voters, Obama now leads McCain by 52 percent to 43 percent. Two weeks ago, in the days immediately following the Republican National Convention, the race was essentially even, with McCain at 49 percent and Obama at 47 percent.

It's just one poll, but still. I do think Obama is handling the crisis much better than McCain--not because he is suggesting better remedies (he continues to say little), but because his instinct to reflect before opening his mouth and his impeccable taste in advisers are both working to his advantage.

These factors I think are much more important than the supposed popularity of standard Democratic positions on economic management. Unlike McCain, Obama offers no instant bold responses, needing to be qualified or withdrawn or forgotten soon after. As ever, he looks calm, methodical and unruffled--and has his picture taken in conference with Paul Volcker, Bob Rubin and Larry Summers, who command wide respect. His response may be thin, so far, on content, but it is an altogether more reassuring posture than his rival's tendency to hasty and exaggerated certainty.

This difference of intellectual temperament has often been seen as one of Obama's biggest drawbacks, including by many of his own supporters. Sometimes his altitude over the issues, and his reluctance to commit himself to simple straightforward positions, have indeed hurt him. But the complexities of the crisis are putting those traits in a much better light.