Obama’s Challenge: Answer the Question of What Comes Next

Robert Borosage

As Democrats gather in Charlotte, N.C., one fundamental challenge remains in President Obama’s reelection campaign. He must use the convention to provide a compelling answer to the basic question on voters’ minds: What does he plan to do to get the economy going and put people back to work?

Polling shows the race in a statistical tie, despite the lousy economy. Voters like the President more than his challenger, and know he has a better sense of their challenges than Republican challenge Mitt Romney, the man from Bain. For the most part, they understand the president inherited an economy in free fall, and don’t blame him for the mess that was left for him to clean up. They’ve not been impressed with Romney’s refried, trickle-down nostrums, nor his plan to cut taxes on the already wealthy and pay for them with harsh cuts in programs for the most vulnerable. They are looking for the president to show them a compelling way out of the fix we are in.

Here Democrats and the president have thus far been vague at best. The campaign has focused, sensibly and successfully, on defining Romney and his agenda. “I’m the man from Bain and I’m here to fix things” increasingly strikes terror in the heart of working families. The medicine he’s peddling is more of what ails us.

So what’s Obama’s cure? The president’s campaign too often sounds as if its remedy is already baked in the policies we’ve got, pointing to saving the economy in free fall, rescuing General Motors, producing months of jobs growth, “more private sector jobs in four years than George Bush in eight.” But that is a loser’s game. Obama can’t sell this economy as successful, nor claim credibly that we are on the right track. He needs to point a clear way forward.

Democrats find this difficult because they are tongue-tied about the trillion dollar deficits. So they don’t want to call for more spending to put people to work. Yet they know that austerity is driving European countries into recession. The result is incoherence. Voters know Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich—or at least not continue the top end Bush tax cuts; they know he’s for the Buffett rule that no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than his secretary (sorry Mitt). That’s popular but it isn’t an answer. And, at this point, it has Romney leading the President on who is better able to deal with the economy.

Recent polling for the Campaign for America’s Future by Lake Research, the premier Democratic opinion research firm, suggests that the President and Democrats would be wise to put forth a bold agenda on the economy that contrasts sharply with Romney’s failed trickle down notions. We tested several bold themes against the Republican message, described with their own best rhetoric charge. Each trumped the Republican message even at a time when Romney is beating the president on the economy.

The attached memo from Lake Research summarizes the research. It suggests that a populist message, combining an aggressive economic frame with proposals designed to rebuild the middle class, provides a strong ground from which to wage this debate.

“Democrats say our choice couldn’t be clearer. Our top priority should be good jobs to rebuild the middle class. But Republicans want to give millionaires another tax cut, and pay for it by raising taxes on the middle class and gutting Medicare and education. That’s just plain wrong. We should invest in areas vital to our economy–research and innovation, education–and rebuild our decaying infrastructure: our roads, bridges, schools, and sewers. Pay for this by closing tax loopholes and asking millionaires and corporations to pay their fair share. Our choices should reflect our values: if you do well in America, you should do right by America.”

These results parallel those produced by Stan Greenberg and the Democracy Corps. The elements of a strong argument seem clear. Challenge the special interests and big money that are rigging the rules to this economy serves the few and not the many (as can be illustrated by every part of Romney’s agenda). Lay out a bold plan for American revival that includes vital investment (rebuilding America and investing in areas key to our future), rules to help workers share in the profits they are helping to produce (raise the minimum wage, empower workers to bargain collectively), policy to help insure that we make things in America once more, and revoke the tax breaks and corporate trade deals that give companies incentives to ship good jobs abroad. Offer to help pay for this with progressive taxes on the rich, by shutting down tax dodges abroad and by taxing financial speculation to help pay of the damage it wrought.

Obama can easily show how he has pushed forward on this agenda, but had the full thrust of his policy frustrated by a partisan Republican opposition more intent on having him fail than having the country recover.

The fall election will turn then not simply on an abstract debate over the role of government, but a debate about who is on your side. And there everything in Romney’s personal biography, professional history or political platform exposes him for what he is —the champion of privilege in a time of trouble.

One thing should be clear. Democrats will not win this election without a bold, populist agenda that shows Americans a way out of the fix we are in. And that surely is the unfinished business that much get done in Charlotte.

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