Old Milwaukee beer’s slogan — “It just doesn’t get any better than this” — should be Barack Obama’s after-hours toast these days.

He faces a Republican Party that built a house-of-cards economy — constructed with paper by speculators betting against inevitable collapse. With recession looming, his opponent is a guy who admits “economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should” — a career politician who famously helped campaign donors intimidate regulators during the savings and loan scandal.

Yet, Obama probably isn’t drinking to anything lately, as Reuters’ poll shows John McCain leading on economic issues.

The numbers are tragic but predictable. Until this week, Obama largely avoided the contrasting FDR-style populism the nation wants and the moment demands.

For example, instead of endorsing forceful re-regulation months ago when the financial meltdown commenced, Obama responded with a vague white paper that not only offered few hard-hitting prescriptions but denigrated key Depression-era regulations.

Likewise, despite slipping in the industrial heartland, Obama has muted his criticism of NAFTA. Indeed, one Obama adviser last week called trade only “an issue of symbolic importance.” Another said that far from opposing a controversial NAFTA expansion into Colombia as promised, the candidate now wants “to make it possible.”

The self-defeating behavior reflects both money and orthodoxy.

Obama has raised $9.8 million from investment houses (more than McCain). For economic advice, he relies on people like Robert Rubin — the NAFTA architect who gutted market regulations as Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary and who then tried to rustle up government favors for Enron as a $17-million-a-year executive at Citigroup, a bank embroiled in today’s implosion.

Under such influences, Obama sends Wall Street hints that his “change” mantra might be empty rhetoric. This month, his adviser Cass Sunstein told The New Republic’s Establishment readership that the senator is merely “a minimalist.” In a recent New York Times interview, Obama himself reiterated his loyalty to free-market fundamentalism, even as it birthed the current emergency.

Discerning whether cash crafted or rewarded these statements is less important than Obama eschewing the populism that could undermine the Royalist Right and fix the economy. And the GOP is filling the resulting void.

Sans aggressive opposition, McCain likens himself to Teddy Roosevelt and pledges support for tighter regulation — hoping America forgets his Keating Five past and March declaration that “I’m always for less regulation.”

His surrogates, meanwhile, are on the cultural offensive. Even as they endorse the crony communism of Bear Stearns bailouts, conservatives are using Obama’s community organizing experience to depict him as an inner-city black socialist — a caricature invoking the geography, ethnicity and ideology that Republicans regularly rely on to prompt white backlashes.

Regrettably, the underlying elitism charge may stick — not because of Republicans’ dishonest rationales, but because Obama confirms the attack’s grounding in a different truth.

Polls show majority support for tougher regulation and fair trade reforms — the very agenda opposed by the Washington and Wall Street elites who populate Obama’s kitchen cabinet. The Democratic candidate’s “minimalism” therefore isn’t a desire to “accommodate, rather than to repudiate, the defining beliefs of most Americans,” as Sunstein sententiously claimed. It is fealty to elites rather than the public — the dictionary definition of elitism.

Certainly, Obama’s is a less pernicious elitism than McCain’s billionaire tax breaks — and the Illinois lawmaker’s sharper speeches and new ads this week might indicate an authentic shift. But if they don’t and the elitism reappears, Obama could stunt real reform and lose a seemingly unlosable election.

“[Americans] crave someone who will be their pocketbook champion,” writes Bob Kuttner, author of the book “Obama’s Challenge.” “If swing voters don’t get that clear message from the Democrat, they will turn to the maverick patriot who did hard time in Hanoi.”

David Sirota is a best-selling author whose newest book, “The Uprising,” was released in June. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network, both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at www.credoaction.com/sirota.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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