President Obama’s speech on the economy Thursday in Cleveland made one thing plain: He and his political team believe that the two parties’ bases are entirely cemented — either for or against him — and the path to victory lies with a tiny sliver of people who remain on the fence about which party is a better for them.
This is not an entirely new idea. Polling suggests that Obama’s first three -plus years in office have been among the most polarizing in the history of the presidency. But, rarely has Obama so blatantly sought to appeal to that sliver of voters who don’t know where their loyalties lie heading into November and to set the stakes of what the choice in November really means.
“At stake is not simply a choice between two candidates or two political parties, but between two paths for our country,” said Obama early on in his speech. “And while there are many things to discuss in this campaign, nothing is more important than an honest debate about where these two paths would lead us.”
Obama repeatedly used the phrase “this is not spin” when laying out the parameters of the economic vision offered by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. He linked Romney to House Republicans, who are decidedly unpopular among independents. He used the word “fair” over and over again. He condemned the “stalemate” in Washington and the power that money plays in politics. (Both are a sort of catnip for independent voters.) He name-checked — and praised — not only Ronald Reagan but also Richard Nixon(!).
And, in case you missed all of that, as Obama neared the end of his remarks, he offered this paean to the middle (and even to those on the Republican side of the aisle):
“I will work with anyone of any party who believes that we’re in this together, who believes that we rise or fall as one nation and as one people. I’m convinced that there are actually a lot of Republicans out there who may not agree with every one of my policies but who still believe in a balanced, responsible approach to economic growth and who remember the lessons of our history, and who don’t like the direction their leaders are taking them.”
The import that Obama and his team gave to the speech was evident not only by the amount of hype that it received in the days leading up to it but in the length of the address itself. At more than 50 minutes, the speech was far longer than a typical Obama stump address and not all that much shorter than some recent State of the Union addresses.
And, a full reading of the speech makes clear that Obama’s real audience was not the folks in the room — base voters who will support his reelection under any circumstances. Instead his goal was to cast himself as a sort of honest broker to independents, someone who has tried time and time again to reach across the aisle only to be smacked down by recalcitrant Republicans. Someone who wants, first and foremost, to act for the good of the country not for his own political interests.
In a way this was a throwback to messaging that we saw from Obama during the 2008 campaign trail and for much of the legislative fights over his economic stimulus package and his health care law.
What was different this time around was that Obama was seeking to make the choice before independents very clear. While he praised the accomplishments of Republicans in the past, he made clear that the two parties have very different visions of what the country needs and when it needs it.
The simple fact — and a reality the Obama team clearly grasps — is that there is almost no swing vote in this election. If you are a Republican, you almost certainly didn’t like the speech and won’t vote for Obama. If you are a Democrats, you loved the speech and would vote for Obama twice if you could. Nothing the president could have said would change that reality.
If you are an independent, you probably didn’t see the speech. (Not to stereotype but most independents in a race as polarizing as this one tend to be the sort of voters who aren’t watching cable in the middle of the day.) Your impressions of what President Obama said will come almost exclusively through snippets in blogs, television and newspaper stories.
It’s no surprise then that the most quotable moments of Obama’s speech were aimed directly at these independent voters who are struggling with what the two parties stand for — and what they would do while in office.
Obama painted that contrast sharply, and made a strong case that he is the right choice for those fence-sitters. The question is whether independents will listen and, more importantly, if they were persuaded.