CHICAGO -- At least as far back as early summer, it appeared likely that Barack Obama and John McCain would be spending most of their time on the stump talking about the economy. Back then, gasoline prices were at record highs, the stock market was suffering and home foreclosures were on the rise.
Fast-forward to today. More than 600,000 people have lost their jobs since the beginning of the year while the titans of Wall Street are going belly-up, forcing the candidates to constantly adjust their economic message to stay ahead of an evolving crisis.
Earlier this month, Obama spent a couple of days talking about education, but a spokesperson said Sunday that the financial crisis meant it would be difficult to plan such themed weeks or days going forward. Last week proved that point: Friday's debate in Oxford, Miss., was supposed to focus on foreign policy, but the first 40 minutes were hijacked by the news on Wall Street, just as much of the last month has been dominated by bad news and shaky markets.
The Obama campaign has, for the most part, welcomed the focus on economic issues, an area where Obama routinely outpolls his opponent. But, as the week came to a close, Obama took his argument that he would be the better steward of the economy a step further, portraying McCain as erratic, out of touch and uninformed and linking him more vigorously than ever with President Bush.
"Senator McCain just doesn't get it. He doesn't understand that the storm hitting Wall Street hit Main Street long ago," the Illinois senator said during a rally outside the Detroit Public Library on Sunday afternoon. "That's why his first response to the greatest financial meltdown in generations was a Katrina-like response. He sort of stood there, said the 'fundamentals of the economy are strong.' That's why he's been shifting positions these last two weeks, looking for photo-ops, trying to figure out what to say and what to do."
But both candidates last week clearly were scrambling to stay on top of the evolving situation. McCain paused his campaign and sought to delay Friday's debate; Obama, in response, said he would keep going, barring a vote in Washington. "What I think is important, though, is that we don't suddenly infuse Capitol Hill with presidential politics at a time when we're in the middle of some very delicate and difficult negotiations," Obama said at a press conference hours after McCain's announcement.
By Thursday, the government had sponsored the sale of another failing bank, Washington Mutual, and Obama ended up in Washington after all to take part in a meeting called by the administration. After the meeting was done, it emerged that there were still several obstacles to reaching consensus on the $700 billion bailout, with "presidential politics" clearly a part of the mix.
The question now is not whether the economy will continue to dominate the race, but in what ways -- and whether voters will hear more specifics about what the candidates would do to create jobs, a question that was absent from the debate. Both Obama and McCain will also be pressed to answer a question they sidestepped when moderator Jim Lehrer posed it Friday: Which parts of their agendas will they sacrifice given the massive amount of taxpayer money being devoted to the bailout?
"I know this economic crisis may be affecting my budget as president, but I reject the idea that you can't build a strong middle class at a time when our economy is weak," Obama told the audience at a Congressional Black Caucus gala in Washington on Saturday night. "Just the opposite -- a strong middle class is the cornerstone of a strong economy."
In Detroit the next day, the senator assured the audience that he and running mate Joe Biden know how to fix things, starting with ending tax breaks for big companies and wealthy executives and "standing up for families." It's part of his campaign's push to connect with working families by casting Obama as a champion of the middle class.
Still, when it comes to creating jobs, the senator has been vague on the stump, talking most frequently about investing $150 billion over the next 10 years to promote renewable energy, something he has said could lead to 5 million new jobs that "can't be outsourced" -- a line that was also a favorite of former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. Recently, Obama has also talked about "saving" 1 million jobs through infrastructure projects and creating an unspecified number of high-tech jobs by eliminating capital gains taxes for small businesses and start-ups.
But Obama has so far made no compromises on items in his agenda such as making college more affordable, universal health care and investing in clean energy. With just over a month left before Election Day, it remains to be seen whether he'll be forced to provide clearer answers or whether he can just run out the clock.