Chief correspondent

There is always one big question at the opening of a political convention, different for each time and place, but something that consumes most of the discussion. In Tampa, it was whether Mitt Romney could warm up his image. In Charlotte, it is whether President Obama will outline a second-term agenda with any more clarity than he has done.

The theme of Obama’s campaign is “forward,” chosen to convey the impression that the country is moving in the right direction. A majority of Americans think otherwise. There is a strong quotient of policy status quo in what Obama has talked about. He has suggested that the policies he has pursued are working and that, given time, they will lay the foundation for a strong recovery in the future.

He has never really acknowledged that he made mistakes — other than saying he didn’t do an adequate job of talking about his accomplishments. Nor has he explained very well why his policies haven’t wrenched the economy out of its current state any faster, other than to remind people of the severity of the recession he inherited and the domestic and global uncertainty that has kept growth low and the unemployment rate high.

Not that there are easy answers to a way out of this economic situation. Romney’s agenda is a combination of old Republican orthodoxy — tax cuts for all that would give the wealthy another big reduction — with an embrace of running mate Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint of spending cuts and entitlement changes. Romney passed up an opportunity at the Republican convention to talk in anything other than generalities about what he would do.

The president has spent a year framing the choice as one of going forward or going back. He began that process last fall, then started his campaign with so-called framing speeches in Ohio and Virginia. A month later, he felt the need to give another (which drew generally weak reviews). He has talked about the issue all summer, and his campaign is running two commercials, one with him and another featuring Bill Clinton, that do the same thing.

That message is more negative than positive, a way for Obama to cast Romney and the GOP as pursuing a backward-looking agenda that would reward the rich at the expense of the middle class, free banks and corporations from regulations, put safety-net programs at risk, and take money away from education and vital domestic programs. Those points will be reinforced by many speakers this week.

Romney’s nomination acceptance speech in Tampa was largely devoid of ideology or big choices. He spent more time trying to give people permission to abandon Obama than to sell an agenda that could mean pain for many. Nor did he fill in the blanks of a tax plan that has described the goodies — across-the-board tax cuts — but not the deductions he would have to eliminate to make his numbers add up.

Will Obama do any better when he addresses the Democratic convention Thursday night? His advisers offer an unqualified yes, without details. At a breakfast with reporters hosted by Bloomberg News on Tuesday, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said Obama will outline a second-term agenda. “A big difference between what Romney did and what the president will do Thursday night is that he will actually lay out a tangible plan going forward with concrete, achievable things that we can do” to rebuild the economy, she said.

Cutter cited energy, which Romney talked about last week in Tampa. Obama’s approach has always favored a more significant commitment to alternative energy investment, Romney’s to domestic exploration and production. Reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a key long-term initiative that every president, dating back decades, sought but didn’t achieve.

Cutter mentioned deficit reduction and said the president has laid out a clear plan. That plan has gone nowhere. Since the debt ceiling negotiations collapsed in the summer of 2011,the president and congressional Republicans have made no serious effort to engage with one another on the deficit. There are informal talks underway on Capitol Hill, but no direct presidential leadership. Obama has been reluctant to embrace credible plans already out there (read: Simpson-Bowles) on the belief that Republicans would unite against it. But if he is as serious about this issue as he and his advisers claim, Thursday’s speech provides a moment to show it.

The so-called fiscal cliff — across-the-board-cuts in defense and domestic programs mandated by sequestration and the expiration of George W. Bush-era tax cuts — looms immediately after the election. Inaction could plunge the economy back into recession. Neither Obama nor Romney has addressed this forthrightly in the campaign, although Obama has said he will not extend the reductions for the wealthiest Americans.

Administration officials have been asked repeatedly how the president’s second-term priorities might differ from those of his first term. One thing they’ve cited is immigration reform — a campaign pledge from 2008 that has remained unfulfilled. Obama had other fires to fight when he came into office, and he put health care ahead of all other elective initiatives. But he had big Democratic majorities the first two years of his presidency and still didn’t push the issue.

Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville issued a Democracy Corps memo Tuesday that outlined the challenge for Obama. The weak economy, they said, leaves him highly vulnerable. Talking about the past may not do enough to win over voters who might be prepared to vote for him but aren’t confident that he has a plan for the next four years.

“We think the country is desperate to know where the president wants to take the country — his vision and plan in the face of weak recovery but more important, the long-term problems facing the country,” they wrote.

The more he does that, the smaller Romney’s agenda will look, they argued. Framing the choice by talking about how much worse things might be if Romney had been or does become president isn’t enough. “While it is right to draw the contrast with Romney,” they wrote, “voters really are hungry to know the plan for success.”

Convention speeches are not usually the time for laundry lists or bullet points. They are not a State of the Union address or a budget submission. But Romney gave the president a significant opening with his convention speech last week. Obama can seize the future in a way Romney did not. But that will require him to do far more than he has done in this campaign.

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