Democrats are incredulous that Mitt Romney didn’t mention U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan during his nomination acceptance speech. But if Romney was AWOL on Americans fighting and dying to prosecute the first war set in motion by the atrocities of 9/11, President Obama’s description of his second-term agenda is just as invisible.
The easiest way to trip up a Democrat in Charlotte for the national convention is to ask him to answer this question: What is Obama’s vision for a second term?
The placeholder answer, of course, is “creating an economy built to last.” But this talking point has, even to Democrats, begun to wear thin. It’s often repeated, but lacks definition.
“Nobody really knows what that means,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who handled Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010. So even though Obama’s reelection slogan is “Forward,” there’s not much talk—at least not yet—of what the country would move forward toward, or of the specific policies that Obama would enact to propel the nation up and out of the current low-wattage economic recovery.
Would it include comprehensive immigration reform? Would it include tax reform? Would it include changes to Medicare and Medicaid beyond those in the 2010 health care law? Would it include any effort to limit greenhouse-gas emissions? Would it include any sustained effort to reduce poverty among African-Americans?
Obama knows all too well that subgroups of Democrats have been clamoring for these initiatives for years. He promised to submit a comprehensive immigration bill in his first year in office. Still nothing. African-American supporters, still strongly in Obama’s camp, are nevertheless aggravated by his refusal to identify inner-city poverty as a priority. And although Obama contends that his 2013 budget contains entitlement reforms, that budget carries no weight on Capitol Hill, and Democrats regard GOP efforts to call it up for a vote legislative shenanigans. Obama hasn’t moved a muscle on legislation to combat climate change since a House-passed bill died ingloriously in a Democratic-controlled Senate in 2010.
Reelection campaigns are typically defined by the incumbent’s policy achievements and what they tell voters about what is to come. Obama has spent precious little time extolling his accomplishments in that area, with the exception of laws requiring new and widespread financial regulations and ensuring pay equity for women. His signature overhaul of health care remains largely unmentioned. For a full day on national television, Obama advisers were bedeviled by the question, “Are people better off than they were four years ago?” On Monday, the campaign declared “yes,” people were better off, but knew it still had some explaining to do.
With such difficulty dealing with reelection basics—what you have done and are people better off—it might be assumed that Obama’s team would by now have fortified the “forward” part of its message. Forward in pursuit of what?
“The answer is simple: Work, work, work,” said Boston-based Democratic consultant Mary Ann Marsh. “Work for the middle class. Work for veterans. Work for minorities. Work for everybody, not just a few. The message has to be in this down economy everyone has sacrificed except the well-off. People have changed their mortgages, stopped spending on things, paid down debt. People have sacrificed. Obama has to explain that making the rich pay some more is the way everybody benefits.”
Allowing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy (defined as adjusted gross income of at least $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families) to expire is the best-known part of the Obama agenda. He introduced a jobs bill last fall that sought to hire or retain police officers, firefighters, and teachers as well as accelerate road- and bridge-construction projects. Obama still mentions this in his stump speeches, but usually in the context of denouncing an obstructionist, GOP-led House and a filibuster-minded Senate minority.
That riff, of course, highlights a persistent but non-debilitating Obama weakness—his inability to forge bipartisan compromises by working with Republicans or moving the public decisively in his direction. If anything, Obama has seen Republicans harness voter skepticism and be rewarded—as in 2010—for choosing hostility over handshakes.
All of this limits Obama’s agenda-setting options, and all signs point to a convention message rooted in a minimalist vision and low expectations for new or bold legislative ambitions.
“There’s not going to be a 60-point policy address,” said Obama reelection strategist and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “He will talk about his vision, but it will be in contrast with Romney’s. He will talk also about what needs to be done on foreign policy and how to end the war in Afghanistan, a war unbelievably forgotten by Republicans.”
“The last thing the president needs to do is launch into a lengthy policy agenda,” said Jim Manley, former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “The policy debate can come at another time. This is not the time for a State of the Union speech.”
Other Democratic strategists contend that Obama need only streamline his economic argument. They advise against a laundry-list agenda. Broad strokes will work and anything else would only bog down what at least some Democrats see as an already-clunky economic message.
"Obama has to win the economic policy debate this week,” said Steve Murphy, a top strategist for Dick Gephardt’s presidential campaign in 2004 and Bill Richardson’s in 2008. “The problem is, he often argues straight-up economics, and independent voters hate it. But a message with no more tax cuts for the wealthy, education investments, and high-tech research and cutting government waste works fine.”
Still others say that the depth of the recession and the attendant state of shock that most middle-income voters feel they have been in obliterates all the standard reelection-message requirements. They contend that Obama’s agenda should be defined less by what he intends to do and more by what he has already done.
"Obama needs to tie together what he did and why with where he wants to lead the country,” said Chris Kofinis, former chief of staff to Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
That means, Kofinis said, that Obama must explain which jobs stimulus spending saved; how the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler saved jobs and created the opportunity for an industry-wide rebound; and how health care reform has helped seniors with lower prescription-drug costs and will aid middle-income voters if fully implemented in 2014. “Elections like this are always about the future, but this incumbent needs to also highlight the strengths of his past.”
But Obama’s campaign has already proven it feels hamstrung by parts of his past. And he remains vague about his priorities for the future. His campaign appears certain of just one thing: that it’s in opposition to Romney. Just as Romney arrived in Tampa certain of his opposition to Obama.
The president, like Romney, defines his candidacy more in terms of what he won’t do than what he will. “Yes we can,” it seems, has shifted to “No, we won’t.”