USA Today reports:
Now, preparing for next year’s re-election campaign, Obama is moving to refurbish a political brand that has been defined for the worst by his Republican opponents, dented by the realities of governing and battered by a faltering economy. He is going on the road to Americans’ workplaces to argue he’s made tough decisions that will pay off over time.
The problem with that is it simply isn’t so. Rather than make bold choices, President Obama is intentionally avoiding them. His budget did not pass the laugh test. His budget speech 2.0 was a partisan attack on the House’s budget plan and failed to present a scoreable, specific budget. He refuses to put forth a coherent plan of his own to restructure entitlements. Giving a succinct summary of the administration’s approach, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) proclaims there will be no Medicare benefit changes on their watch. In that entirely fabulistic view of entitlements, one understands just how little the Democrats care about making “tough decisions that will pay off over time.”
As Robert J. Samuelson points out in his Post column today, a tough decision that would pay off over time would include a frank acknowledgment that “Medicare as we know it” isn’t going to continue. He writes:
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that unless we end Medicare “as we know it,” America “as we know it” will end. Spiraling health spending is the crux of our federal budget problem. In 1965 — the year Congress created Medicare and Medicaid — health spending was 2.6 percent of the budget. In 2010, it was 26.5 percent. The Obama administration estimates it will be 30.3 percent in 2016. By contrast, defense spending is about 20 percent; scientific research and development is 4 percent.
Rather than make hard choices about Medicare — or the debt more generally — Obama has ceded ground, largely to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and adopted foot-dragging (as on free trade agreements), myth-making (cutting defense and raising taxes on the rich will stem the tide of red ink) and demagoguery in lieu of compelling policy.
Recall in the 2008 campaign that Obama was going to eschew “politics as usual. What happened to that, and the promise of a technocratically adept leader? Alas:
“Brand Obama in 2008 was brilliant,” says consultant Jonathan Salem Baskin, author of Branding Only Works on Cattle. His approach was fashioned to appeal to an electorate disenchanted with Bush’s tenure.
“Change is a powerful branding message in every election, and his in ’08 was elegantly clear,” Baskin says. “All you had to say was, ‘I want a change.’ That led you directly to ‘I’m going to vote for Obama,’ irrespective of the other half of the ratio,” his record of delivering.
Baskin says Obama lost control of his brand once he took office.
Brilliant no more? Well, perhaps the “brand” was more like false advertising. Obama’s two and a half years in government have given us a litany of rotten economic results and a dearth of smart policy proposals. But most of all, they have been characterized by a refusal to make those hard choices and deliver unvarnished news to Obama’s base and the country at large.
Obama might be smart to come up with a campaign theme based on something other than “tough decisions,” until he actually makes some.