Can Barack Obama really make this election a referendum on the economy?

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After reading (and watching part of) the speech on the economy that Barack Obama gave in Raleigh on Monday, and listening on a conference call with Obama advisers Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman, I churned out this little piece for Time.com:

When it comes to economic policy, Barack Obama’s standard campaign crack that a John McCain administration would amount to a third term of George W. Bush contains an awful lot of truth. Yes, McCain is a different man, with a different history, who will face a different set of challenges and opportunities than Bush has. But look through McCain’s campaign pledges on the economy, and for the most part they really do amount to a continuation of two key policy priorities of the Bush administration: cutting taxes and moving more economic decisions (and responsibilities) into the hands of individuals.

McCain economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin tried over the weekend to make the case that it’s Obama who more closely resembles Bush because they’re both big spenders. But it’s hard to see that one sticking. If this election becomes a referendum on the recent performance of the U.S. economy, Obama wins and McCain loses. It’s as simple as that.

Can Obama make this election a referendum on the U.S. economy? He’s certainly going to try. If his speech in Raleigh, N.C., Monday afternoon was any indication, though, it’s not going to be a slam dunk. It’s clear that Obama’s economic policies aren’t a continuation of the Bush era. But what they are remains a hard-to-summarize mix of moderate Democratic standbys, populist silliness and the occasional truly visionary proposal. They haven’t coalesced into anything you could really call a rallying cry. Not yet, at least.

The Raleigh speech kicked off a planned two-week push by the Obama campaign on the economy — most of it taking place in battleground states that went for Bush in 2004. This week he’s talking mainly about short-term fixes “to help working families who are struggling to keep up”; next week, his aides say, the focus will be on the long run. The latter plays to Obama’s strengths, as he can wax eloquent about the nation’s need for investment in education, infrastructure and clean energy. For now, he and his advisers are reciting the details of his three big short-term priorities: a new $50 billion stimulus program, much of it routed into extending unemployment insurance beyond the current 26-week limit and helping struggling state governments; a more aggressive foreclosure-prevention effort, with $10 billion in funding; and a tax cut for Americans making less than $150,000 a year — to be financed with tax increases on those making more than $150,000 a year.

These add up to what you could call the stock Democratic response to tough times. They’re not necessarily bad ideas, but they’re not what you could call new or transformative either. Obama throws in a few populist panders — he favors a windfall profits tax on oil companies (which could discourage investment in new energy resources), and says he would oppose raising the Social Security retirement age (which if phased in over a long enough period would be the fairest, most sensible way to ease some of the system’s long-run funding challenges). Near the end of the speech, there was a hint of Obama’s “yes, we can” vision: a plan to give $4,000 a year in tuition aid to college students who pledge themselves to community or national service after graduation.

You can see the internal tensions within the Obama campaign in this laundry list. His economic advisers are moderate, mostly free-market-oriented wonks. His campaign strategists would presumably love it if he breathed a bit more populist fire. And the candidate himself balances a lifelong devotion to progressive causes with what seems to be a pretty keen sense of the tradeoffs inherent in economics. All of which helps explain why, for the moment at least, Obama’s most compelling economic argument remains the fact that, on the economy, John McCain sounds an awful lot like George Bush.

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