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The Day That Made Obama

September 15, 2008.

11:58 AM, Sep 19, 2013 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Sunday was September 15. It's an important anniversary, because it's the day that gave us President Barack Obama.

Official portrait of Barack Obama

In the airbrushed history of the 2008 presidential campaign, a young, attractive Barack Obama triumphed over an old and disorganized John McCain in a rout. The senator from Illinois ran a race based on Hope and Change and led wire to wire.

But that's not how it really happened. Obama did base his candidacy on Hope and Change, yes. But what won him the Democratic nomination were his attacks on Hillary Clinton for supporting (initially) the Iraq war.

Once he got into the general election against McCain, the race was actually nip-and-tuck during the summer, with Obama holding a steady, but small, lead. (You can go back and review the polling from the whole campaign here.)

Then, as summer wrapped up, something strange happened: McCain closed the gap. Today everyone "knows" how awful Sarah Palin was. But she gave two very good speeches—at her introduction in Dayton and after being nominated in Minnesota. The combination of her energy and the McCain campaign making a plausible case as to why Obama couldn’t be trusted resonated with voters. And for eleven days McCain held a lead in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

What happened then? Lehman Brothers collapsed, pushing America (and then the world) from an economic downturn into a financial crisis (which then led to the Great Recession). The chronology here is pretty unmistakable: McCain took the lead on September 7. Lehman went down on September 15. On the 17th, Obama and McCain were tied. Ten days later, Obama was up by 4 points and never looked back.

Neither candidate had much to say about the financial crisis. In part, that was because neither man had any particular expertise in the matter. But also because neither campaign had spent any time worrying about economics. In the end, though, that didn’t much matter. A Republican was president when Lehman went down and voters weren’t about to trust the presidency to another Republican. The logic of politics isn't always fair, but it isn't unintelligible, either.

If Lehman had held on for 12 more weeks—or gone bust 12 weeks sooner—who knows what might have happened. No Obamacare? No HHS mandate? No gay marriage victories in Maine, Maryland, and Washington state? And maybe the story in Syria turns out a little better, too.

All because of the death of a financial house that few Americans even remember five years later. 

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