President Obama will travel to Cleveland on Thursday to deliver what aides describe as a speech that will sharply cast November’s election as a choice between his economic stewardship and an alternative that would return the country to the policies that caused the downturn.
The address comes at a moment when some Democrats are calling for a change of course in the president’s campaign message, which they say is too backward-looking and does not explain how Obama would continue to try to boost the anemic economy. Obama advisers have dismissed such concerns. But they are nonetheless billing the event as a major framing speech that the president worked on extensively and that will be followed by a blitz of surrogate appearances in key battleground states.
The speech, advisers said, will contrast Obama’s efforts to strengthen the middle class — through such initiatives as education programs, the bailout of the auto industry and investment in infrastructure — with what Republican Mitt Romney says he would do as president. Obama is expected to argue that Romney’s proposals to extend and expand tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and to slice deeply into government spending without committing to new revenue, reflect the policies of George W. Bush’s presidency, which ended with huge deficits and a recession.
“The president believes that this election is a fundamental choice between two very different visions for how we grow the economy, create middle-class jobs and pay down our debt,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at his briefing Wednesday. “The other side’s plan is a $5 trillion tax cut that explodes the deficit while gutting the investments we need to grow.”
What’s unclear is whether Obama’s Democratic critics will view the speech as more of the same. These critics think the president has spent too much time blaming Bush for the state of the economy and criticizing Romney — and too little time offering a bigger vision. They acknowledge the difficulty of explaining a complicated moment — and combating a simplistic message from the other side that effectively says the economic woes are “all Obama’s fault.” Yet they say the president is not making the case well enough for what he has done and what he would do going forward — and where he’s trying to take the country.
“When the president talks about it, he wants to say and often does say, ‘America’s back,’ ” said Robert Borosage, a co-director of the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future. “But that doesn’t match what people are feeling. You need to send a message that ‘We saved you from free fall, and now I’m fighting every day to get the jobs we need, and these guys are standing in the way.’ The more you want to make it into a merit badge, the more you make it sound like you do not know where people are.”
Republicans are making a similar pitch. In a conference call with reporters previewing Obama’s speech, Russell Schriefer, a Romney senior strategist, said the president will offer “more of the same — no new ideas about how to get the economy going, no real new proposals, just more spending, more taxes, more regulation.”
Much of the Democratic angst stems from two dismal weeks for Obama and his party, starting with a disappointing jobs report that showed far less growth than in the previous few months.
Then came new national polling showing that Romney had rebounded from the damage of a bruising primary season more quickly than some Democrats had anticipated. New finance reports showed that Romney and Republicans outraised Democrats for the first time in the election cycle.
On Wednesday, news broke that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson had committed $10 million to a pro-Romney group, underscoring the GOP’s advantage in a contest that allows unlimited corporate spending for the first time.
Looming over all is the uncertainty about how Europe’s debt crisis could affect the United States, as well as how the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Obama’s landmark health-care law in the coming weeks.
That amounts to a long list of headaches, acknowledged former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, a leading Obama booster. But he said “ups and downs” are inevitable in any campaign.
“I don’t have a lot of patience for Democrats who seem not to understand the give-and-take of a political campaign,” Strickland said.
Obama advisers echoed that sentiment. They said the economic speech is not meant as a shift — it has been in the works for several weeks — but as a continuation of a message underway all along. It’s important to deliver now, advisers said, to amplify what Obama has done — and what Romney would do — at a time when Americans’ uncertainty about the economy is ticking upward again.
“We are approaching the summer months, and in my judgment a lot of attitudes get fixed during the summer months,” Strickland said. “The lines are drawn, the candidates are in place, the contrast is now possible. And so I do think this is an important time for the president to be out there absolutely laying it out.”
What’s clear is that Obama is not backing away from blaming the ailing economy on Bush. If anything, he is amplifying that message. On Wednesday, Carney, in his daily briefing, noted that a new survey from the Federal Reserve shows how median family income declined by 40 percent between the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2009. The point being: It fell before Obama took office, and it has been climbing ever since.
The previous day, at a fundraiser in Philadelphia, Obama made the case more directly, saying:
“For these folks suddenly to get religion and say, ‘Man, deficits and government spending’ — when they ran up the tab and are trying to pass off the bill to me — listen, let me tell you something: Even after you factor in all the work that we did to prevent us from slipping into a depression, the pace of growth of government spending is lower under my administration than it has been in the last 50 years.”