Saturday, September 01, 2012

Obama's message is jelling

We often hear that Romney has a challenger's advantage in a down economy. He can stick to a simple message: the economy is broken and Obama can't fix it -- I can.  And the Romney campaign has indicated that he regards offering detail as a disadvantage and distraction. Don't say what you'd cut; don't say what tax loopholes you'd close or what "simple, effective" regulation would look like; just offer yourself as a problem solver who "knows how jobs come and how they go."

Such a strategy could work if the economic news is bad enough. But there's a flip side. Obama, unlike Romney, has a record to run on -- a record of engagement with national problems that he doesn't have to run away from, as Romney does from his signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts. And now, Obama is running on that record. Here he is at UVA on Aug. 29, combating the notion that he failed to bring hope and change:

you believed four years ago that we could put a college education within reach of everybody who is willing to work for it.  That's what you believed.  (Applause.) 
So we created a college tax credit that’s saving middle-class families up to $10,000 on college tuition.  We fixed the student loan system that was giving billions of dollars to banks as middlemen.  We said let’s use that money to double grant aid for millions of students.  (Applause.)  We won the fight to prevent student loan rates from doubling for more than 7 million students.  
None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for you, if it hadn’t been for the work that you did, if it hadn’t been the faith that you had in your ability to make a difference.  You helped millions of young people, maybe including yourself, to earn a college education.  You made that happen.  And that makes me believe, that gives me confidence.  It gives me confidence about the future.  (Applause.) 
Four years ago, we talked about how we could use less foreign oil, reduce the carbon footprint that threatens our planet.  And in just four years, we have doubled the generation of clean, renewable energy like wind and solar.  (Applause.)  We’ve created thousands of good American jobs because of it.  Today, we’re less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in nearly 20 years.  We’re on track to emit fewer greenhouse gases this year than we have in nearly 20 years.  We can keep those trends going.  And that is all happening because of you.  (Applause.) 
Four years ago, you believed that nobody in America should go broke because they get sick.  Today, because of the new health care law, affectionately known as Obamacare -- (applause) -- because of that law, nearly 7 million young people are able to stay on their parent’s health insurance plans.  (Applause.)  Your grandparents are saving money on their prescription drugs.  Women have gained access to free preventive care like mammograms and contraception.  (Applause.)  Thirty million Americans will be able to finally have the security of health care coverage.  (Applause.)  You can't be barred because of a preexisting condition.  You made that happen.  That's because of you.  (Applause.) 
Four years ago, we said we’d end the war in Iraq -- we did.  (Applause.)  More troops are home with their families.  They're earning their education, in some cases, with the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  They're out there starting new businesses.  But that's not the only change we made -- because no one ever again will have to hide who they love in order to serve the country they love.  We ended "don't ask, don't tell."  You made that happen.  (Applause.)  
The point is, Virginia, your vote mattered.  Your voice made a difference.  Change was possible because you made it possible.
 Obama contrasts that record pretty effectively with Romney's skeletal outline:
pay a little attention to what’s happening in Tampa this week.  
AUDIENCE:  Booo --
THE PRESIDENT:  Don't boo -- vote.  Vote.  (Applause.) 
I mean, my opponents are down there, they're offering their agenda.  And it’s a pretty entertaining show.  (Laughter.)  They’ve got wonderful things to say about me.  (Laughter.)    But you know what’s interesting is you can listen very carefully, very hard, and you won’t hear them offer a clear, serious path forward.  You won’t.  I mean, they’ve got an economic plan that can be summed up very simply.  They say that if we give a $5 trillion tax cut -- which includes giving an extra $250,000 tax cut to people making $3 million a year or more -- then somehow, prosperity is going to rain down on the rest of us.  (Laughter.) 
Now, many of you were too young to remember, but we tried this for about a decade before I came into office.  It didn't work then; it's not going to work now.  (Applause.) 
I don’t want to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut by raising taxes on the middle class.  I don’t want to pay for that by cutting financial aid for tens of millions of students.  Our economic strength does not come from the top down.  It comes from students and workers and small business owners and a growing, thriving middle class.
The contrast is also subtly personal, tying Romney's economic approach to his upbringing:
You will decide whether we can keep making college more affordable, or whether we take my opponent's advice and just have your parents lend you money.  (Laughter.)  See, I think that we should help more Americans earn the kind of education you receive here at UVA.  We've also got to help more Americans go to community colleges to get the skills and the training that employers are looking for right now.  (Applause.) 
And I'll say this again, just so you know I mean it. Michelle and I, we've been there.  We know what it's like.  We just finished paying off our student loans eight years ago.  Think about that.  We shouldn’t be making it harder for young people.  We should be making it easier for young people.  (Applause.)  We shouldn’t end the college tax credit we created.  We should be expanding it.  Higher education isn't a luxury.  It is an economic necessity for every single American.
The personal difference extends to a compassion gap that has become an actual signature contrast:
We could go back to a health care system that lets insurance companies decide who and when and what to cover.  But I think we’ve got to move forward with Obamacare.  (Applause.)  It’s already cutting costs.  It’s covering more people.  It’s saving lives.  
Governor Romney has promised that sometime on his first day, he is going to kill Obamacare.  He’s going to sit down, grab a pen -- now, this would mean that he -- by a stroke of a pen, apparently he thinks that he can kick 7 million young people off their parent’s plan.  He can make prescription drugs higher for seniors.
THE PRESIDENT:  Suddenly folks with preexisting conditions are out of luck.
AUDIENCE:  Booo -- 
THE PRESIDENT:  He calls my health care law Obamacare; I call his plan "Romney Doesn’t Care."  (Applause.)  He’s running on the "Romney Doesn’t Care" platform. 
In an ancillary theme (or rather, the central campaign theme), "looking backwards," as Obama claims Romney does, is a failure of compassion, and moral imagination, and inclusiveness, and openness to facts:
So here’s the bottom line.  Passing a new $5 trillion tax cut targeted at wealthiest Americans, it won’t create jobs.  It sure won’t bring down the debt -- it will increase it.  Ignoring inequalities don’t make them go away.  Denying climate change doesn’t make it stop.  (Applause.)  Looking backwards doesn’t make our future brighter.  It doesn't make your future stronger.
And looking backward has a clear motive:
They expect that you will not be paying attention enough, or you will be distracted enough, or you will be discouraged enough that you walk away, and that means big oil writes the energy bills, and the insurance companies write the health care bills, and politicians in Washington decide what a woman can or can't do when it comes to her own health.  
I have perhaps always been overly susceptible to Obama's rhetoric. So this may be confirmation bias -- but it seems to me that his central themes, his defense of his record, his attack lines and his vision of opportunity for all are jelling effectively. His governing philosophy - -shared prosperity fostered by smart public investment -- hasn't changed since 2008 (or earlier).  But his speeches now are folding a narrative  of the last four years into the case for that investment.

In 2004, when I so desperately wanted Bush to go down, I remember a reporter asking him something about what might happen if he lost, and Bush replying, "I'm not gonna let that happen," asserting that too much was at stake, a war to be won...that worried me. It sounded like he meant it. I thought he'd do whatever it took, e.g., steal it if necessary.

I get -- not the same feeling, but an analogous feeling from Obama now. He seems locked in. He seems to be enjoying himself.  He conveys convincingly a conviction that his loss would be a catastrophe.  Of course all incumbents feel that way, and events beyond his control could flip it.  But I don't expect him to lose the debates. I don't expect his campaign to fail to execute.  I don't feel like he's going to let a loss happen.

And btw, I feel also that Obama has learned how to govern. The core lesson has been simple: don't try to work with the Republicans until you've politically bludgeoned them by making them defend politically untenable positions. Since the debt ceiling debacle, Obama's done this twice on the payroll tax cut and once on student loan rates.  If he's reelected, he'll have them over a barrel on taxes.  This time, he won't blink.

Related: Obama flashes his debate strategy

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