To win, Obama must get tougher

After being pummeled for weeks by John McCain, and losing some of his slender lead in the polls, the Obama campaign may finally be showing signs of life.

Barack Obama was always a long shot to win the White House. It's no secret that some portion of the electorate will never vote for him because of his color. But he has made the odds even longer by running a campaign that, since the primaries, has seemed directionless, uninspired and addicted to generalities.

And the candidate himself has seemed flat. No fire. No passion.

I'm all for thoughtful, reasonable, even cerebral candidates. But if ever there was a presidential campaign that cried out for a populist's passion, this is it.

A time for passion

The last eight years have been calamitous. We're struggling with two wars, one of which we never should have started. The economy has tanked. The housing market has collapsed, and foreclosures have skyrocketed.

Motorists are reeling from high gasoline prices. The financial-services sector is teetering like a skyscraper in an earthquake. Robust budget surpluses have morphed into deficits stretching to the horizon and beyond. Cash-strapped, debt-ridden working families are viewing the future with high anxiety, if not outright fear.

Obama should be invoking FDR, who wanted to make the U.S. “a country in which no one is left out.” And Harry Truman, who had no qualms about getting in the face of the political opposition. (“I never gave anybody hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.”) And Robert Kennedy, who wanted the government to get behind a massive effort to rebuild the country and create millions of new jobs.

Obama has been talking about the economy lately, but his approach has been tepid and his remedies vague. The electorate wants more. A so-so appearance in Martinsville, Va., recently warmed up considerably when Obama began talking about jobs and the nation's infrastructure.

“We need a policy to create jobs here in America,” he said. Suddenly, the crowd was paying closer attention. Feeding off the heightened energy, Obama talked of the need “to invest in people and our infrastructure right here in the USA.”

He went on: “At a time when Iraq has a $79 billion surplus – they have parked it in banks in New York City – it doesn't make too much sense for us to be still spending U.S. taxpayer dollars, $10 billion monthly, rebuilding Baghdad. We should use some of that money to rebuild Virginia, building roads and laying broadband lines and putting people back to work.”

There was a burst of applause, and the crowd was completely with him. It was the kind of connection Obama will have to make repeatedly, across the country, if he expects to win.

At that moment in Martinsville, the senator was speaking plainly, and his listeners had no trouble relating. “If we create a world-class infrastructure,” Obama said, “we create jobs now, but we also create the competitive platform for the future.”

Is Obama tough enough?

Obama needs a first-rate, crackling-with-excitement populist message, which means a laser-like focus on the economy and jobs. And he needs to show a lot more fire.

Obama likes to say he's skinny but tough. But with all due respect, he hasn't yet demonstrated the degree of toughness needed to prevail in a presidential campaign. A populist message and a willingness to take the fight to his opponent is Obama's ticket to the White House. He's got 10 weeks to show if he's got the right stuff.