At the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, President Obama told Americans that he wouldn’t promise “quick or easy” solutions to America’s problems. He promised “bold, persistent experimentation” to “solve challenges that have built up over decades.”
“You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear,” he said. “You elected me to tell you the truth.”
But Obama’s the speech was more about proving he is better than the other guys than it was about bold experimentation or tough-minded solutions.
Obama did a fine job of the first. “[Republicans] want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan,” he said, pointing out that Mitt Romney’s big address in Tampa last week devoted almost no time to policy. GOP ideology, he said, runs this way:
“Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.”
“Deficit too high? Try another.”
“Feel a cold coming on?,” he said later, “Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”
Republicans, Obama charged, believe that “since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.”
“I refuse to go along with that,” he said of GOP tax orthodoxy, “And as long as I’m president, I never will.”
But what would the president do in a second term instead?
Obama started off with energy policy, mixing a discussion of some real accomplishments – groundbreaking car efficiency standards, for example – with ominous promises to continue expensive supports for “clean coal” and biofuels. He tried to take credit for more domestic oil production when high world oil prices and the deployment of novel drilling techniques had more to do with it. He at least mentioned the importance of battling climate change, but he left the politically bold — and the most obvious — policy out: putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions.
Obama had the time to describe Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, promising he would never turn the entitlement in a voucher program. But he didn’t spend any time explaining his alternative – “reducing health-care costs.” That is perhaps because he probably means to empower a board of experts to wring waste out of the system. That’s an idea worth explaining, but it’s also not popular.
The president spoke of recruiting “100,000 math and science teachers in the next ten years” without discussing how he would ensure that those already in the classroom are effective, or how he would pay all those new teachers competitive salaries.
And, speaking of money, the president’s section on tackling the debt was hardly courageous. Though he said he was willing to work on a compromise budget deal after the election, he repeated his claim that he has a proposal to slash $4 trillion. Not only does that number rely on phony cuts, the president didn’t offer any explanation for why it would be sufficiently ambitious, even if it were real.
Obama can point out that he is more reasonable than the Tea Party, more consistent than Mitt Romney and more mainstream than Paul Ryan. And he has a good shot at winning on those terms. But achieving the many fine social goals he favors will require more than a mandate not to be the other guys, but some sophisticated policy. He asked us, anyway, to expect nothing less.