international analysis and commentary

Obama in search of a winning message


After three and a half frustrating years in the White House, demoralized by a seemingly endless economic crisis, the Democrats, in Charlotte for their national convention, were finally able to rekindle some of the enthusiasm that propelled them to victory in 2008. Back-to-back primetime speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton and the incumbent Barack Obama, laid out the White House’s three-pronged strategy for the remainder of the presidential campaign, the final all-hands-on-deck home stretch between now and November 6th.

Judging by the convention proceedings, the Democrats’ goal for these next two months will be to remind voters once again of the unprecedented situation President Obama inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush; to emphasize, more forcefully than they have in the past, the successes of the administration thus far; and to convince Americans that they have the better plan for the next four years, portraying the contrast with the Republicans’ in the starkest terms possible.

“It is important that people understand the context of the economy the President inherited,” said White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer at an event on the economy organized by Politico on the sidelines of the DNC, “the steps we have taken to get from there to here, that we are making progress, and, most importantly, that there is a dramatic choice about which direction we go, are we going to continue building on success or are we going to go back to the policies that got us into this mess to begin with?”

But while party leaders and activists alike appeared more assertive in defending their record, the bit of their message that continues to come across the strongest is the one about Bush’s failures. In part, this is something that resonates with voters. According to Gallup, as of last June nearly 70% of them still blamed the former president for today’s difficult economic conditions. But if one takes a look at President Obama’s job approval rating (which, as per Gallup, has been steadily below 50%) and to how voters judge the state of the economy (a Reuters/IPSOS poll from the beginning of September has 75% of people saying that it is on the wrong track and only 17% believing it is moving in the right direction,) it becomes evident that the November elections will be won or lost not on the Democrats’ criticism of the Bush era but on the vigor – or lack of thereof – with which they persuade Americans that they are in fact better off now and sell them on the potential of another Obama term.

“Four years ago the Dow Jones was a couple thousands points lower than where it is now,” says David Gliddon, Professor at the Colorado Technical University and a delegate from Pennsylvania. “We are much better off today, we’ve got a great recovery considering how far we’d fallen.” But Gliddon agrees that the Democratic establishment has been somewhat squeamish in discussing the “better off” question. “They are a bit scared about making this point, I guess because everybody wants more growth.” And that’s the truth of the matter. With 23 million Americans out of work, an unresolved housing crisis, and low consumer confidence, the White House is extremely careful in trumpeting its successes for fear of insulting voters who are still navigating troubled waters.

It is no coincidence that former President Clinton turned out to be the best advocate for the Obama administration at the convention. Having been out of office for some 12 years, Clinton is able to speak to the American people in much more honest, unrestrained terms, without fear of reprisal. “Are we where we want to be? No. Is the President satisfied? No. Are we better off than we were when he took office, with an economy in free fall, losing 750,000 jobs a month? The answer is Yes,” said Clinton. And then he added, “No President – not me or any of my predecessors – could have repaired all the damage in just four years.” Clinton went on to enumerate the Obama administration’s many efforts to steady the economy, the stimulus, the bailout of the auto-industry and the healthcare reform among others. 

Austan Goolsbee, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, offered another convincing but rarely heard argument of how things in the United States are better than they seem. In the Politico conference on the state of the economy, Goolsbee correctly noted, “What a scary and awful time this has been for the world economy. For all the problems we are facing here, the US has essentially the fastest growth rate in the advanced world.”

Not to say that everything went by the books during the first Obama administration. While praising the White House for intervening to stabilize the financial system and introducing new regulations, Barry Lynn, Director of the Markets, Enterprise, and Resiliency Initiative at the liberal New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., said in an email interview “the administration’s most obvious failure is in banking. The biggest banks are bigger than they were at the start of the crisis. And Obama clearly has no appetite for making them smaller.”

Nevertheless, one can say that, overall, Americans are better off than at the depth of the crisis in 2008-2009, but not nearly enough to be celebrating the work of the White House yet. Which is where the President’s speech was supposed to come in, to sketch the plan for the next four years, but didn’t.

“I’m asking you to rally around a set of goals for your country, goals in manufacturing, energy, education, national security and the deficit, real, achievable plans that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation,” said Obama on the convention’s closing night. It was a solid speech, but far from the grand oratory he has been known for and also surprisingly void of specifics. In short, he promised to stay the course if re-elected: on taxes, by allowing the Bush cuts to expire for incomes above $250 thousand a year; on energy, by pushing forward with an all-of-the-above strategy of Made in America resources; on manufacturing, by revving up exports; on education, by expanding access and quality; and on the debt, by continuing working on a grand bargain inspired by the findings of the so-called Simpson-Bowles commission. Which is all good if you liked Obama’s first term, or are inclined to believe that the Republicans’ opposition made it all but impossible for him to do his job, but not as much if you were looking for the President to pitch new ideas.

In a phone interview from Washington D.C., David Madland, Director of the American Worker Project at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress, suggested just a few items that a second-term Obama might want to address. “First, he should deal with the housing crisis that continues to be a huge drag on the economy,” said Madland, “then he should start rebuilding our infrastructure – although there was some effort to do that in the stimulus – and raise standards to fight the deterioration in wages, for example because the minimum wage has not kept pace, and lastly he can work on cutting a long-term deal to reduce the debt.”

Why the President decided to mention only the latter in his acceptance speech remains unclear. It could be because he feels confident that he is going to win and, therefore, his first goal was to play it safe, avoid mistakes, and bring it home. However, news from the highly anticipated job report for August was underwhelming for the incumbent, with only 96,000 jobs added and downward revisions for both July and June (although the unemployment rate ticked down to 8,1%.) It could also be because he thinks that whatever specific proposals he puts forward automatically generate the obstructionism of Republicans and are, therefore, dead on arrival. But it is a strategy that exposes Obama to the criticism that he has nothing more to offer the country.

At the end of the day, the chance that any of the things the President (or the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan ticket for that matter) proposes between now and November will be enacted in the next four years depends almost entirely on which party controls what branch of government. A Democratic president and a Republican Congress, or vice-versa, would continue to make it very difficult for Washington to legislate effectively. Which is why, although both conventions have been overwhelmingly focused on the presidential campaign, one might in fact say that Congressional and Senate races matter just as much this year in terms of the economic future of the United States.