President Barack Obama stands on stage after addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—When the economy is poor, an incumbent president has few options for reelection. If he looks back, he reminds voters of hardship. If he looks forward, he seems like he’s ignoring the problem. His only choice is to defend his record, and hit the other side for unfair attacks. It’s not an effective approach—voters don’t like it when the president pleads for fairness. Challengers have an easier task. As long as they can identify hardship and propose a plan that looks effective, voters will join their cause.
Yes, the economy is poor, but this is not the scenario faced by President Obama. It’s been four years since the most serious economic collapse in eighty years, and the economy is growing. We’re creating jobs at a steady clip, and the stock market has bounced back. But, as Bill Clinton pointed out last night, Americans aren’t “feeling it.” Household incomes are still down, and many are stuck in jobs that can’t provide for a family. This is why Mitt Romney has an opening, and this is why most polls show him within a point of the president.
To put this another way, conditions are poor enough to make this a competitive race, but good enough so that Obama is a favorite. And so, if you’re on Team Obama, you have one question—how can we build and maintain the president’s advantage?
Optimism is the usual approach. The economy, though, isn’t good enough for that to work. Besides ringing false, it risks angering those who have grown worse off since Obama took office. However, Obama can’t look backwards without giving Romney a chance to make a forward-looking case for growth.
And so, to square this circle, President Obama has taken an unusual approach—he’s positioned himself as the challenger. He's not holding the line in hopes it won't break; he's mounting a charge against the other side. Rather than make a full defense of his record, he detailed his plans for the next four years: “a million new manufacturing jobs,” smaller oil imports and “600,000 new jobs in natural gas,” “100,000 new math and science teachers” and cheaper tuition costs for colleges and universities. The list continues: robust veterans benefits, action on climate change, a simpler tax code with higher taxes on higher earners, a long-term deficit solution, and better health care for seniors through Medicare.
He also takes the time to highlight the extent to which this election is a stark choice between mutually exclusive ideologies. “On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
Most incumbents save this kind of detail, and this kind of framing, for the State of the Union. But because surrogates like Bill Clinton spent the convention defending his record, Obama was free to show voters—undecided or otherwise—that he has a plan for moving forward. It’s a message geared toward the millions of voters who like Barack Obama, but aren’t sure if they should support him for a second term. “We have a plan for progress, and if you want it, you’ll stick with us.”
Of course, if Obama’s the challenger, then there needs to be an incumbent. Obama’s focus on the future was complemented with an attack on the past, as represented by Mitt Romney and the Republican Party. “[A]ll they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years: ‘Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.’ ‘Deficit too high? Try another.’ ‘Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!’”
(The crowd went wild at this line. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the extent to which the delegates were frenzied with excitement.)
It’s a smart move. In the Democratic narrative—as presented by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and others—Mitt Romney is a force for the status quo. It helps that the GOP failed to articulate actual policies at their convention. After three days devoted to “humanizing” Mitt Romney, there wasn’t time to offer a compelling vision for the country. With this speech—and this convention—Democrats have filled in the gaps with a simple message: choosing Romney would be an explicit decision to “go back to the failed policies of the past” and return the United States to a time of lost opportunity. Obama's speech ended on a high note. “[I]f you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November.”
This doesn’t soar as high as Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech, and in many ways, is reminscisent of the performances he’s given on the stump. I wouldn’t be surprised if this speech receives ho hum ratings from journalists who have been listening to variations on this for the last six months. But for ordinary people who don’t follow politics, this was new information and needed context. Tomorrow, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its August jobs report. A poor one will blunt Obama’s momentum, and give Romney a chance to recapture the intiative after a lackluster Republican convention. But projections suggest another month of steady job growth, allowing Obama to end this week on the most positive note possible.
The only thing better would be a substantial convention bounce. Romney didn’t receive one, which has led many pundits—including myself—to wonder if the electorate is too polarized to shift allegiences. But this was a strong convention, and if Obama receives a bounce, it will validate the campaigns’ approach, and put Obama in a strong position for the final stage of this election.