1) The central idea in the speech — that Washington is in a “stalemate” about how to move forward that only the American people can break — was the answer to a clear strategic dilemma. Obama needs to figure out how to highlight GOP obstructionism of his policies in a way that will matter to the American people. The risk has always been that swing voters won’t care why Obama can’t get jobs policies passed, and will simply conclude that he’s been too weak and ineffective to fix the economy, even if they agree with his basic values and priorities, leading them to pick someone who can just get something done already.
By casting the current situation as a “stalemate” that the American people need to break, Obama is implicitly arguing that if people do agree with his overall sense of where the country needs to go, they can cast a vote that amounts to more than a protest against gridlock, dysfunction and inaction, which can easily get held against the incumbent. Obama was essentially telling the American people that they have to make their choice clear — hopefully driving home that this election is a choice that will determine the future direction of the country, rather than just an occasion for people to register disgust with the status quo.
2) Obama framed that choice as one between GOP adherence to free market and anti-tax fundamentalism on one side, and concerted government action to rebuild the middle class on the other. Crucially, he said the main obstacle to progress on the deficit and on jobs legislation is GOP opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy. “It’s the biggest source of gridlock in Washington today — and the only thing that can break the stalemate is you.”
Obama cast GOP deficit-hawkery as fraudulent, pointing out that Republicans only care about the deficit when they’re out of power, and repeatedly noted that the GOP solution is that the “market will solve our problems all on its own.” In sum, Obama is hoping that swing voters will ultimately decide that he’s the one with their true interests at heart and a sense of the future they can identify with. Obama didn’t cite any ideas he hasn’t proposed before, but the entire message of the speech was that if the American people make their choice clear this time, his plans for investment in job creation, the nation’s infrastructure, education and our clean energy future can finally move forward. It’s a big gamble: That even if swing voters say they’re sour on some of his policies, ultimately they’ll have faith in his overall vision and will determine that the other side’s ideas have already failed us.
3) Obama made the most explicit case yet that Mitt Romney doesn’t have a plan to fix the crisis. The president cited independent economists who have said that Romney’s plans could make things worse, hoping to elevate a topic media figures seem largely unwilling to discuss — the question of whose ideas would actually fix the economy.
This was also the idea behind Obama’s prebuttal to the hundreds of millions in ads that are about to be unleashed. Obama told voters to expect ads with “scary music” and a voice telling them Obama is detached from Americans’ suffering and the true state of the economy and that he’s a lightweight with no experience in business. He then said:
“That may be their plan to win the election. But it’s not a plan to create jobs. It’s not a plan to grow the economy. It’s not a plan to pay down the debt. And it’s sure not a plan to revive the middle class and secure our future.”
This was the ultimate appeal in Obama’s speech. He knows economically struggling swing voters are about to get nuked by months of single-minded messaging — the economy stinks and no one seems to be doing anything about it, so get rid of the guy in charge — and he’s trying to get them to ask themselves what Romney is really offering as an alternative.