So what does President Obama need to do to win re-election in November? Better.
The media is awash in advice to the President in advance of this week’s Democratic convention in Charlotte. Never one to miss a good scrum, here’s mine:
Take control of the national conversation. There was something very narrow and self-serving about the Republican convention. David Brooks likened it to a Junior Achievement convention. “It was all about small business, as if commercial activity is the only sphere of American life.” In focusing on entrepreneurship, the Republicans forgot that more people work for businesses than own one. They buried their social agenda and, for the first time since 1952, made no serious attempt to address America’s foreign policy. This leaves a wide-open playing field for the Democrats––one they should tread carefully.
Their first order of business should be to address the state of the economy, and put it in context. It is not enough to recite the oft-quoted administration line that Obama entered office in a month when America lost 800,000 jobs and has now presided over 29 months of job growth.
An early speaker, perhaps Rahm Emanuel, has to remind voters of the depth of the problem when Obama took office: 8 million jobs lost in the last two years of the previous Republican administration; a collapsing housing market so out of whack foreclosures still ripple through the courts; auto sales plummeting from 16 million to 9 million a year in an industry that has one in five manufacturing jobs; and overseas troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan adding half a trillion dollars a year to the national debt.
This is no time for sloganeering shorthand. Are you better off than you were four years ago? No. So Democrats need to acknowledge the recession didn’t suddenly end with Obama’s inauguration. (Hope and change aren’t the same as magic.) In his first 90 days in office––a time when Obama arguably had little control over the economy–– job losses continued: 724,000 in February, 799,000 in March, and 692,000 in April before the trend line reversed.
These are numbers that paint a fuller picture of the hole America fell into (and never made it into a single Republican convention speech). Laying them out may seem a bit pedantic. But if you give people all the facts, then you will own the facts – and that’s not a bad position to be in during an election year when every political ad requires a fact-checker.
If independent voters are going to be the deciding factor in this election, the Democrats should recognize that they are independent because they want to be persuaded by a good argument. The role of the leadoff speaker on the economy (and I nominate Rahm) is to make sure listeners have this basic understanding in mind when other speakers––notably Obama himself––make the argument that America is on track to a better future.
Talk to the white men. Modern polling techniques allow campaigns to see how they are doing with men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, young people, old people, voters in swing states, even voters who probably won’t vote. This is valuable information for a campaign, but a convention that caters to all these constituencies winds up serving none.
This convention is the best opportunity President Obama will have to address the constituency where he is weakest––white men. Many people suffered during this recession, but the white, working class male who lost a job, or toils along with higher bills and no raise, has suffered not only economic losses, but a sharp blow to his esteem. Democrats too often forget that if something is going to work for America, it has to work in the minds of that broad swatch of the electorate known as white males.
Yes, white males traditionally vote Republican, but they respect a leader who is strong militarily. Obama’s success killing bin Laden, deposing Gaddafi, and conducting an orderly withdrawal from Iraq should leave more than a few with an open mind. Gov. Romney did little at his convention to demonstrate his strength as a leader. Strength, determination, and a plan that shows white men how they are a part of America’s future might convince them.
Don’t run against Romney, run against the House Republicans: In charting a new course for his second term, Obama will have to make the case the chief obstruction to America’s recovery, past and future, are the House Republicans. Ever since House Republicans took America’s credit rating to the brink last year, Democrats have been yearning to see Obama “Give ‘Em Hell.” There’s no better time than a political convention. The gridlock in Washington isn’t a bipartisan standoff, he should argue. It is a Republican invention, a deliberate tactic that is slowing the recovery, bogging down once bi-partisan reform measures, and, unless the Republican House is cleansed, will guarantee a fiscal cliff disaster in 2013.
Success in his second term can’t be accomplished by going around the House; Obama will have to drive his agenda through it. So his re-election is closely tied to regaining control of the House, or at least picking off the seats of many Tea Party freshmen who have been his nemesis.
This is a cause that could finally make the Democratic grass roots catch fire. Many Tea Party incumbents already face strong challengers in their districts (see Tammy Duckworth vs. Joe Walsh). By linking arms with them, Obama gains valuable troops on the ground on Election Day, and broadens the reasons why Democrats should turn out.
Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate makes this line of attack all the more plausible. Forget the soaring convention speech, Ryan supported all the Bush administration budgets that drove up the deficit; he has been in lockstep with the House Republican caucus in rejecting Simpson-Bowles, the Obama-Boehner deficit deal, or any compromise that includes higher taxes on people earning over $250,000. If Obama can successfully place the blame for gridlock in Washington on the House Republicans, Romney will go down with them.
Have an Adult Conversation about Obamacare. Gov. Romney has promised to repeal Obamacare on day one–– a pledge that is neither feasible or desirable. Too many Americans are already benefiting from provisions that keep insurance companies from excluding people with pre-existing conditions; that allow students to stay on their parents’ policies until the age of 26: and cap the administrative costs of health insurance plans at 20 percent.
The Democrats need to make the case that the best is yet to come, and they need to make it slowly, avoiding the rancorous––and misleading––sloganeering (like, for instance, whether the $712 billion reduction in Medicare payments is a cost savings or a threat to senior citizens). The huge sums of money at stake in Obamacare–– health care is 16 percent of the gross national product –– are beyond a layman’s understanding. But the benefits of specific provisions are not.
When health care reform was first introduced, health insurance costs were rising at a rate of 16 percent a year. The goal at the time, Obama said, was to “bend the costs” of health care. Now he has to outline how other reforms in the bill, delayed until the coming years, will do that.
Republicans appear to be winning the war over whether Obamacare––the word–– is good or bad. They’ve done this by equating it with the Republican’s favorite bugaboo: socialized medicine. But most voters will like the patient benefits coming down the road. Obama’s challenge is to remind them what these are, and why this is a step forward.
Use your words, but change them. “Hope” and “Change” were the watchwords of the 2008 campaign. But change is progressive. Change has to lead somewhere. The challenge of Obama’s Thursday night speech is show a path that gets America over the approaching fiscal cliff, restores faith in our economic system, and maintains our standing in the world as a moral and economic leader.
Four years in Washington has done nothing to sharpen his rhetoric. The grind of producing daily White House pronouncements on every event of the day, responding to individual pieces of legislation, foreign crises, and national calamities has dulled his message––and his delivery.
It is unrealistic to expect he can take a few days, cleanse his palate and cough up another sermon on the mount at this convention (as he did in 2008 in Denver). But Obama does have the capacity to see the whole playing field and the intellectual acuity to map out the steps that will take America to the next level. If he can do that, the words will come, and the people will follow.