What Does Obama Need to Do Tonight? Defend His Record.

Ahead of tonight’s town hall debate, the Obama campaign has released a direct-to-camera video featuring Bill Clinton, who—as president—thrived in town hall-style environments. The video, which is meant to clarify the issues around Mitt Romney’s tax plan, is a partial restatement of Clinton’s acclaimed speech at the Democratic National Convention. Take a look:

I get the reasoning behind this video: to remind voters of Mitt Romney’s absolute commitment to the interests of the wealthy, and to call to mind the last round of upper-income tax cuts, which did little to boost economic growth but insured a decade of gains for the richest Americans. Still, I think it’s a mistake.

The genius of Mitt Romney’s vague tax plan is that it allows him to mount any defense that sounds plausible. Indeed, if there is anything Romney is ready for, it’s attacks on his tax proposals. And as we saw in the last presidential debate, he’s adept at twisting any criticism into an opportunity to extol the claimed virtues of his tax plan.

Rather than get stuck in this mud, President Obama should avoid the issue altogether. Instead, he should return to the rhetoric he used to great effect in the spring and summer—a firm explanation of what the Romney/Ryan budget would cost in terms of national investment, environmental commitments, and aid to the less fortunate. Force Romney to defend his proposed massive cuts to Pell Grants, food stamps, environmental protection, and other federal functions. Or at least, take advantage of the fact that he’ll respond with banal generalities; Obama had one solid line in the last debate—“He’s not hiding his plans because they’re too good for the middle-class.” This should be the basis for his attacks tonight.

One more thing: If there’s anything striking about Barack Obama’s campaign for re-election, it’s his unwillingness to defend his record on the merits. So far, Team Obama has been focused on the (many) flaws of Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, which gives people a reason to vote against the opposition, but doesn’t provide much for those who want something to vote for.

Given where we were at the beginning of 2009, I think there’s a lot to say for Obama’s record on the economy, and domestic policy writ large. When Obama took office, the country was in an economic free fall; we were hemorrhaging jobs at a rate of 800,000 a month, and major elements of our economy—the financial sector, the automobile industry, the housing market—were on the verge of collapse. On top of this, there were a whole host of medium- and long-term problems: Health-care costs were spiraling out of control, leaving millions without access to basic care; our regulatory apparatus was in tatters, and despite the growing consensus around climate change, we were a decade behind on efforts to reduce emissions and move to a green economy.

Today, the economy is growing at a slow but steady clip, with unemployment at a four-year low of 7.8 percent. Jobless claims are down, and the country has entered a more steady recovery. The auto industry has seen a remarkable comeback, and the stimulus has plowed billions into infrastructure and clean-energy investments. The administration doesn’t have a perfect record—it dropped the ball on housing, and has been disappointingly lenient toward the people who caused the collapse—but compared to other developed countries, it did a good job of stopping the collapse, and moving the nation out of recession.

What’s more, it’s made meaningful progress on those medium- and long-term problems: The Affordable Care Act will give 30 million Americans access to health insurance, and begin the long, hard work of reducing our health-care costs. Likewise, for all of its flaws, the financial-reform law is a major attempt to reform Wall Street—the first in decades—and prevent a repeat of the 2008 collapse. And all of this is to say nothing of the fact that Obama ended the war in Iraq, and embraced full equality for LGBT Americans.

Compared to the disaster of the previous administration, and the small ball of the Clinton years, this is a genuinely solid record, and one of the most progressive since Lyndon Johnson’s. And in a second-term, Obama will work to improve and strengthen his accomplishments: full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a draw down in Afghanistan, and more efforts to improve the economy. These don’t sound like “big ideas,” but ending a second war and pioneering universal health care are substantial and important steps for the country to take.

There’s still time for Obama to turn this around and rebuild his lead. But first, he needs to show Americans what they have after four years of his administration. He needs to take a stand on his record, and dismiss the notion—for once and for all—that his presidency has been a failure.