- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

With Americans sick and tired of war in the Middle East and suffering from an expanding recession, a 46-year-old Democrat who offered hope and change made the economy the focus of his presidential campaign, rocketing to the top of the polls and packing stadiums like a rock star.

In November, the Democrat won. The year was 1992 and the rock star was Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, whose successful message as he defeated 68-year-old incumbent George H.W. Bush was “I feel your pain.”

Sixteen years later, the battleground is similar, and Sen. Barack Obama on Monday kicked off his first day of head-to-head combat by lashing four-term Republican Sen. John McCain as a rerun of the Bush presidency - out of touch on the economy and lacking solutions for skyrocketing gasoline prices, spiraling job losses and a wave of home foreclosures.

“That is the choice we face right now - a choice between more of the same policies that have widened inequality, added to our debt and shaken the foundation of our economy, or change that will restore balance to our economy, that will invest in the ingenuity and innovation of our people, that will fuel a bottom-up prosperity to keep America strong and competitive in the 21st century,” the 46-year-old, first-term Illinois senator said in a speech in North Carolina.

Mr. McCain, 71, who supported President Bush’s war in Iraq and whose tenure in the Senate makes him a prime target for Mr. Obama’s message of change, fired back, reiterating his specific proposal to ease gasoline costs in the short term.

“I advocated a break for Americans from the gas tax - 18 1/2 cents a gallon of gas you pay in taxes,” Mr. McCain said at a coffee shop in Richmond. “That was derided by Senator Obama and many others as a gimmick, et cetera. Talk to somebody that owns a couple of trucks and ask them if they’d like to have a relief from 18 1/2 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24 1/2 cents a gallon for diesel.”

Mr. McCain acknowledged that the proposal is “not the answer to our energy problems, but … don’t you think that low-income Americans, who drive the farthest, with the largest gas-consumption automobiles … deserve a break?”

At every turn Monday, the Democratic presidential nominee sought to tie Mr. McCain to the Bush administration, who many voters blame for the poor economy and whose approval rating has plummeted to record lows.

“For all his talk of independence, the centerpiece of his economic plan amounts to a full-throated endorsement of George Bush’s policies,” Mr. Obama said. “If John McCain’s policies were implemented, they would add $5.7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. That isn’t fiscal conservatism, that’s what George Bush has done over the last eight years.”

And Mr. McCain, perhaps trying to avoid the downfall of the first Bush administration, didn’t downplay the reach of the economic downturn or cite indicators of a quick turnaround. In 1992, Mr. Clinton rode the recession to the White House, despite indications it was already over.

With gasoline topping $4 a gallon for the first time - and with energy experts predicting $5 a gallon by August - Mr. McCain is busy trying to lock down his claim to be working for hard-hit Americans. At a fundraising luncheon in Richmond, Mr. McCain rephrased Mr. Clinton’s mantra when he said: “Americans are hurting.

“We need lower taxes, we need to stimulate our economy, we need to keep people in their homes,” the Arizona senator said as he accused his Democratic challenger of seeking to raise the capital gains tax on stock profits, which would affect market players at all levels.

Mr. Obama, taking a page from one-time presidential candidate former Sen. John Edwards, who was in the North Carolina audience for the presumptive Democratic nominee’s speech Monday, took aim at a bigger target.

“I’ll make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and we’ll use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills,” he said.

The Democrat said Mr. McCain was hypocritical for painting himself as a foe of excessive government spending but then supporting across-the-board corporate tax rate cuts.

“At a time when we’re fighting two wars, when millions of Americans can’t afford their medical bills or their tuition bills, when we’re paying more than $4 a gallon for gas, the man who rails against government spending wants to spend $1.2 billion on a tax break for Exxon Mobil,” Mr. Obama said. “That isn’t just irresponsible. It’s outrageous.”

Although Mr. Obama said “every single proposal that I’ve made in this campaign is paid for,” he did not explain in his speech how he would pay for proposals such as an “immediate $50 billion to help those who’ve been hit hardest by this economic downturn” and a “$10 billion Foreclosure Prevention Fund.”

The McCain campaign offered a rebuttal to the senator’s speech during a conference call with North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr and former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin.

On the claim that Mr. Obama’s proposals are “paid for,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said: “There is no way, at least to my knowledge, that one could verify that - he’s been very non-specific. … It’s an assertion without a foundation.”

On the difference between Mr. McCain - who opposed Mr. Bush’s tax cuts as too skewed toward the wealthy but now says their extension is the only way out of the economic mess - and Mr. Obama, Mr. Burr said more taxes are a foregone conclusion.

“It’s impossible for Senator McCain to run from a 20-plus-year career in the United States Senate, thousands of votes, but it’s very easy to focus on the 94 times in just three years Barack Obama has voted to raise taxes. I think there are certain things that America voters can predict, and raising taxes on the part of Senator Obama is a pretty certain thing,” the senator said.

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