What Obama must do
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
September 6, 2012 04:55 PM EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Barack Obama’s reelection slogan is Forward, and his challenge Thursday will be to explain what that would mean in a second term.
He’ll face that test as he formally accepts his nomination, closing out a convention defined in its first two days by Michelle Obama’s surprisingly deep dive into reintroducing the man who’s been president for four years and Bill Clinton’s impassioned, 90s nostalgia-rooted defense of the first-term record.
But as Obama knows well, elections are about the future, and people in the Time Warner Cable Arena and around the country are looking more for another round of hope and change, burned but not broken.
Even diehard Democrats don’t think Obama can seize command of the campaign — which Mitt Romney and the Republicans have tried to make a referendum on the past four years — without providing more detail on his vision for the next four years. As much as Democrats talk about being swamped by super PAC money, they’re also nervous about the enthusiasm gap between the must-defeat-Obama ranks on display in Tampa last week and Obama’s own dampened and disillusioned supporters.
No one doubts the speech will be engaging. But this isn’t 2008 in Denver.
“He easily hits them out of the ballpark,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “He’s got to do better than that this time.”
He’ll need to refute Republican attacks that the nation was better off before he got to the Oval Office, tell Americans what he has done to move them forward — and what he will continue to do. Attacking Romney or falling back on his standard rhetoric about the global economic headwinds he faced won’t be enough. He needs to build a positive case for himself.
Enough defense, Democrats say. Obama needs to start living up to that simple slogan he picked and beat the other side on offense.
“The details are in his plan, and what he needs to do is paint a more vivid picture about the plan for the future,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.
The economy remains the central issue of the election, and Democrats say that should be the president’s focus. That means talking about the proposals he’s already put forward on deficit reduction and tax rates that have been blocked by Congress, and blaming Congress for them. That means harshly pointing out how vague Romney’s been on his own plans. But that also means accentuating those contrasts by laying out what lies ahead.
“The choices this year are as stark as they could possibly be,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said. “And so, what I think he needs to do is lay out for the American people what exactly that choice looks like.”
Obama faces a fundamental problem, though: No matter how hard he sells the improvement in the economy and job growth he’ll claim since taking office, he’s not going to be able to say things are good — and Americans will be reminded of that Friday morning when the latest monthly jobs report hits.
Talking about a hard slog that’s still hard and still a slog might show empathy, but it’s never going to be as inspiring as what he said four years ago in Denver. And he’ll need that inspiration to help motivate the grass roots and move the moderates.
The solution, former California Gov. Gray Davis argued, is going big.
“People want to be revved up around a set of ideas that we can all embrace going forward,” Davis said. “None of us will forget John Kennedy’s call to plant a man on the moon. This would be a perfect place to unveil a big idea and rally the country behind it. The country is looking to be inspired, and looking to be uplifted — and he has the skills to do it.”
But part of the positive case Obama needs to build is also retrospective — making a case for his record to neuter the all-talk, no-results narrative Romney and the Republicans have built around him. The president has struggled to show the link between his policies and people’s lives, and he’ll need to bring that out if he hopes to counter the Republican attacks on “Obamacare” and the bailout and the stimulus as giant, faceless — and frightening — programs. Romney and Paul Ryan say these programs and others have curtailed people’s freedoms.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Obama should look to the power of numbers in making his case, wrapping Romney with George W. Bush and the Ryan budget and the House Republicans — as Bill Clinton did Wednesday night.
“The president proposed, and the Democratic Congress passed, the American Recovery Act, as a result of which, within 14 months or so, we turned [a] 750,000 job loss a month into [a] 250,000 job gain a month. We turned around a million jobs a month — and that was laying a solid foundation,” Nadler said. “And then, the Republican Congress got elected and refused the president’s initiatives, such as the American Jobs Act and others, and the recovery became anemic because the Republicans blocked the road. And I assume he’ll point all this out and push his vision for more investment that would generate jobs.”
But Obama can’t get bogged down in those numbers.
“It certainly can’t be a State of the Union speech,” former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson advised. “But what it can be is laying out broad themes, laying out also on the economic side a strong commitment to the private sector that these attacks are false. That he is very private-sector oriented. And secondly, what are the new initiatives that might come up in a new economic plan.”
And as the crowd made clear Wednesday in its reaction to Clinton’s off-Teleprompter knock that Ryan’s attack on Obama robbing Medicare “takes some brass,” they’re looking for more red meat than tofu.
“He has been too nice. I want him not only to continue to tout the successes as we have started to do, but also to say, ‘This is a fight we can win, I’m up to it. I’m going to spend 24 hours a day working on it. I’m not afraid, and I know that we can beat these ones who are undermining everything I’ve worked for,’” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). “We want to see the fight in him.”
And that fight must look ahead.
“I don’t think the president should spend a lot of time talking about the past. I don’t think he should be litigating out or having arguments about the past,” Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden said. “The choice is whether to make progress going forward or go back.”