President Obama’s agenda: A return to political normalcy

September 6, 2012

If you looked past the rhetoric and focused just on the policy, this was a modest speech. It was a more humble vision. What President Obama offered the country on the final night of the Democratic convention was reminiscent of what Warren G. Harding offered almost a century ago: A return to normalcy after a long period of emergency.

Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post

Consider the problems -- and the solutions -- of Obama’s first term: The financial system almost collapsed, necessitating a $700 billion bailout. The economy almost collapsed, necessitating more than a trillion dollars in stimulus spending. The American auto industry almost collapsed, necessitating a taxpayer bailout. The euro zone almost cracked up. The financial regulation system needed to be remade. The health-care system was reformed. The war in Iraq ended. The war in Afghanistan began to end. The leader of al Qaeda was hunted and executed.

This has not been a normal time. And it’s not been a normal time for a long time. It began with 9/11, more than 10 years ago, and continued through the financial crisis. And it’s not, with unemployment over 8.3 percent, over.

But the time of politics being about abnormal solutions and awe-inspiring goals does appear to be over, at least in Obama's agenda. The president didn’t mention the American Jobs Act in tonight’s speech. He didn’t even really mention the jobs crisis. He didn’t push for cap-and-trade or promise to change Washington. A week ago, Mitt Romney mocked Obama’s 2008 proclamation that his election would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal,” but Obama was no less decisive in repudiating that sort of grandeur.

Rather, he promised his reelection would mean we “work with colleges and universities to cut in half the growth of tuition costs over the next ten years” and give “two million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job.”

He said that in a second Obama term, the country could “create a million new manufacturing jobs” and “cut our oil imports in half by 2020.”

He said he wanted a $4 trillion deficit-reduction deal “based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission,” contrasting that with the Medicare vouchers and root-and-branch tax reform promised by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

These are achievable goals (see the White House's full list of "goals for America" here). These are goals that continue the path we’re on rather than dramatically change it. We’re already on track to cut our oil imports by a third by 2018. We’ve already created 500,000 manufacturing jobs since the recovery began. We’ve already cut $1 trillion of the president’s promised $4 trillion.

In its primetime hours, this was a convention pitched to a country exhausted of politics and crises and fighting. Michelle Obama’s testament to her husband’s character, Bill Clinton’s defense of his record, Joe Biden’s admiring retelling of his steely approach to tough decisions, and, finally, President Obama’s detailing of his vision were all trying to do the same thing: Give voters who fundamentally like and trust Obama permission to vote for him again, even if they don’t feel the way they did about him in 2008.

And so it didn’t ask you to believe that Obama could accomplish miracles. It didn’t ask you to believe he could change Washington or stop the oceans from rising. The promises were more modest, the president explicit about how often he had been humbled, and the agenda was meant to make voters feel safer with the Democrat they know than the Republican they don’t.

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Ezra Klein · September 6, 2012