Politics & Government

Just in time for Obama, economy becomes Issue No. 1

Sen. Barack Obama campaigns in Virginia, July 2008.
Sen. Barack Obama campaigns in Virginia, July 2008. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Unthinkable a year ago, Iraq has faded as the defining issue for the 2008 presidential election.

The buildup of American troops in Iraq has reduced U.S. and Iraqi casualties and raised hopes that American troops could come home. Attention overseas is turning to rising violence in Afghanistan. And Americans have a new top priority: the economy.

The flip-flop in popular opinion could help Democrat Barack Obama, lowering the profile of one issue — Iraq_ that, surprisingly, might have been helping Republican John McCain and raising another — the economy — that historically helps challengers such as Obama.

One new poll this week underscored how dramatically the political landscape has shifted since this long campaign started.

This week, 53 percent of Americans ranked the economy their top concern heading into the election, while 16 percent ranked Iraq their chief worry, according to a national survey by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. In May 2007, the priorities were the opposite, with 57 percent naming Iraq the top issue and 5 percent naming the economy.

The political impact of the Iraq fade could be surprising.

The issue was supposed to be a surefire winner for the Democrats as the Republican-led war turned unpopular.

But Obama hasn't scored as well as he'd hoped. Although he can say he was correct in arguing that the war was a mistake, he was dead wrong in saying that the increase in troops wouldn't curb violence. This week, he took comments criticizing the troop buildup off his Web site.

McCain was able not only to say that his troop-increase strategy succeeded but also to keep the debate focused on questions about military strategy, where he's presumably stronger.

A new poll out this week by ABC News and The Washington Post showed Americans split over whom they trusted more to handle Iraq, with 47 percent saying McCain and 45 percent saying Obama.

The same poll found that 72 percent think that McCain would be a good commander in chief; 48 percent said the same of Obama.

So the success of the McCain troop buildup might cost the Arizona senator by allowing the country to shift its attention elsewhere.

"That's a problem for McCain, because he had staked so much of his candidacy on his ability to be commander in chief and the fact that he pushed for the surge," said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

"Once Iraq is off the front page, voters shift their priorities. They're not so worried about Iraq and will make their choice based more on domestic issues."

The political fallout of a shift to the economy is more predictable.

It should hurt the party that holds the White House and help Obama and the Democrats. That's what happened in 1980, when anxiety about the economy helped Republican Ronald Reagan oust Democrat Jimmy Carter, and in 1992, when similar angst helped Democrat Bill Clinton defeat Republican George H.W. Bush.

"That always helps the out party, and Obama is the challenger," said Maurice Carroll, the director of the polling institute at Quinnipiac University.

A new Zogby poll for the Reuters news service this week found just one out of 10 likely voters giving U.S. economic policy a favorable rating.

Yet it also found the Illinois senator with only a small edge among voters who favored him to handle the economy over McCain, 44-40 percent.

"There is a perception that neither candidate has a handle on the economy and there's no clear direction from the public about what direction to go," pollster John Zogby said. "It's not as though there is a demand for a new New Deal or Great Society or, on the other hand, for tax cuts."

What's clear as of now, he said, is that the issue is dominant.

"The economy is clearly foremost on the list of people's concerns," Zogby said. "That probably will continue as long as things are sour."


More on the Zogby poll

More on the Quinnipiac poll

More on the Washington Post-ABC News poll