The Barack Obama White House and the president’s re-election campaign have received plenty of advice lately from top Democratic operatives who want them to succeed and fear that they won’t.
They ought to listen.
“We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative (that) focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class,” veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg warned.
“President Obama is in trouble,” said another longtime Democratic pollster, Peter Hart. Citing declining support for Obama in a recent Colorado focus group due to “their unmet high expectations,” he added, “These participants have no idea where we go from here.”
Greenberg and Hart want Obama to present a rationale and vision for his second term akin to the one that helped him win in 2008. While they’re basically right, that’s a tough task for an incumbent president who is enmeshed in the political reality stemming from his failure to achieve a better economic record, a president who faces the prospect that his re-election won’t break the current governmental gridlock.
The answer probably lies both in continuing to argue the superiority of his current and proposed economic proposals over Mitt Romney’s and in making several explicit pledges between now and the Democratic convention that offer the promise of going beyond the current debate.
First, Obama needs to correct his 2010 error and make explicit his support for the balanced Simpson-Bowles approach to dealing with the deficit, renewing his advocacy of the “grand bargain” rejected last summer by House Republicans.
In doing so, he should acknowledge the need for cutting Medicare costs by reducing benefits for the wealthy and should challenge Romney’s endorsement of a House Republican plan that slashes domestic programs, drastically changes Medicare and rejects defense cuts.
Second, he should take Bill Clinton’s advice and endorse a six-month extension of the Bush tax cuts, but only if key congressional Republicans agree to work with him over the next year on reform and simplification of the nation’s tax system.
Even if the proposal is rejected by Republicans, it would enable Obama to advance the dialogue from the recurring debate over whether to extend all or some of the sweeping tax cuts that President George W. Bush won from Congress in 2001 and 2003.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems likely that Obama made a strategic miscalculation in agreeing to extend the cuts for two years as part of a 2010 compromise with congressional Republicans that reduced payroll taxes and extended unemployment benefits.
The miscalculation was that, if he won re-election in 2012, he’d have leverage over the Republicans to eliminate lower taxes for the wealthy. But even if Obama wins, that may not happen since Republicans are likely to retain enough congressional support to block it. (If he loses, Republicans won’t agree to anything until they can enact their own proposals.)
A major reason Obama must act is that the business community fears continuing gridlock may hit the economy at year’s end with a double whammy of higher taxes and spending cuts from last year’s deficit agreement. These concerns have created a pall over the already sluggish recovery.
Proposing a short-term extension of the Bush tax cuts would not only signal flexibility but could give the economy a badly needed pre-election boost and call the Republicans’ bluff.
Finally, instead of more 54-minute stem-winders like last week’s speech in Cleveland, Obama needs to refine and simplify his economic message. Despite the slow recovery, he has a good argument in drawing a contrast between his balanced proposals and Romney’s advocacy of more tax cuts for the wealthy and his refusal to specify what spending cuts he favors.
But Greenberg and Hart are right that Obama needs to take a more forward-looking approach, both substantively and perceptually.
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