President Obama has been getting a lot of unsolicited advice in recent days.
First up was the memo from DemocracyCorps, the James Carville/Stanley Greenberg-founded nonprofit, which said Democrats will “face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class.” Then came the stories about prominent Democrats or researchers complaining that the president’s team is too resistant to outside advice or doing a poor job of selling his record. As a result, the hand-wringing seemed to box the president into an awkward corner: He can’t campaign without talking about the past and what he has done, but he can’t dwell on it too much and risk not sharing his ideas about the future.
Whether or not he listened to the advice, the president’s speech Thursday seemed to reflect it. While the crowd at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio included enough supporters to sound more like participants in a Baptist revival than attendees at an economic speech, the president spoke directly to independent voters, drawing a sharp contrast between the ideas he stands for and the platform of his opponent. While he quickly walked through the events that occurred before his presidency that helped precipitate the economic doldrums and the broad outlines of what his administration has done, he spent most of the speech focusing on his plans for the future.
I lost count of how many times he used the word “vision.” While he limited the talk of “hope” and “change,” he finished the speech with a reminder that it is within voters’ ability to resolve the problems this country faces, making people feel as if they’re part of the solution. The speech was short on new specifics and overly broad at times, but it remained focused on what he felt the country could do and where it could go if it worked together.
The DemocracyCorps memo may have prompted a lot of chatter about what the Obama campaign is or isn’t doing right. And who knows whether it was actually heeded or not. But it’s worth keeping in mind that what the memo was calling for—and how the president focused the majority of his speech—isn’t some act of political genius or strategic jujitsu. It is leadership, pure and simple. “The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy,” the Carville/Greenberg memo read. “They know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the President talk about the future.”
Records and experience matter, yes. How a leader differs from his or her competitors does, too. But what people really want to hear is where their leaders are planning to take them and how they plan to get them there. Carville’s famous line from 20 years ago—“it’s the economy, stupid”—is still true. But now it’s also the vision, stupid.
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