With Obama set to deliver a big speech on the economy, there’s been a lot of chatter this week about the memo from Democracy Corps demanding a message revamp. The complaint is that Obama’s suggestion that the economy is recovering is alienating voters who continue to experience economic anxiety and even misery.
The problem Obama faces: He must talk about the past, at least to some degree, in order to explain (1) why the recovery has been slow and difficult; and (2) why what he intends to do about it is better than what Romney would do about it, i.e., a return to policies that have already failed us. In other words, to draw the very contrast Democrats want to see, Obama needs to look backwards and forward. This will give Republicans something to attack (he’s blaming Bush!) and it could give nervous Dems something to second guess further. But this strategic dilemma seems unavoidable.
A second problem: How can Obama rebut Romney’s central argument — Obama has failed, so get rid of him — without opening himself up to a second charge, i.e., that he’s unwilling or unable to admit how bad things are? The beauty of the Romney strategy is that the claim that Obama is “out of touch” with Americans’ ecomomic suffering makes it harder to rebut the claim that he’s not been able to deliver and is making excuses for it. The Romney theory is that swing voters can be persuaded to turn on Obama, whom they personally like and want to succeed, if they are convinced that he’s failed to meet expectations as he defined them — that is, if they decide Obama let them down. That’s what the claim that Obama is “making excuses” is all about. It’s tough out there!
Perhaps the clearest way to judge Obama’s speech is with this: How vivid a picture is Obama painting of what voters’ lives will be like, and what the American future we’re leaving to our children will look like, under a Romney presidency versus an Obama second term?
There are many layers to this contrast — taxes, entitlements, economic growth, health care, the role and scope of government, our energy future and the fate of the planet — but ultimately getting this right with total clarity seems like his best hope of solving the overlapping political difficulties he faces. I assume Team Obama already knows this, but the election will be all about the status quo under Obama unless he can make it about what each respective presidency would actually mean to people. It may be the only contrast voters are willing to listen to.