Democracy Corps distributed a polling memo Monday that put its finger squarely on a frustration among progressives with President Obama’s campaign for re-election that had been simmering long before his disastrous first debate.
Simply put, Obama is failing to communicate a compelling economic agenda for change. The Tuesday night town hall debate may be the president’s last chance to position himself as the change agent that the voters demand. And the key to doing that is convincing voters that it is he, not Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who will move the country toward a full-employment economy.
“In the first debate, Obama did not make a bold case for the bold policies he would offer in the next four years,” the memo, written by Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert, said. It goes on to say, “Obama lost the attention of independents and unmarried women when he spoke about economic progress or talked about the progress of the last four years. With most of the President’s surrogates saying, ‘give him more time to finish the job’ and with the President closing the debate almost making the same small offer, Romney got the opportunity to be heard as the voice of change.”
The memo points to the difference between recent Obama and Romney campaign ads are emblematic of the problem Obama faces. This “Main Street” Obama ad, and more notably this ad featuring Morgan Freeman, tout Obama’s past successes and subtly raises fears of what a Romney presidency would bring. “The last thing we should do,” Freeman says in his voice-of-God tone, “is to turn back now.”
Meanwhile, a Romney ad features the candidate crisply running through what sounds like a specific plan to create 12 million jobs by the end of his first term. “First, my energy independence policy means more than 3 million new jobs, many of them in manufacturing. My tax reform plan to lower rates for the middle class and for small business creates 7 million more. And expanding trade, cracking down on China, and improving job training takes us to over 12 million new jobs.”
In an upcoming post Bill Scher will explain why this is all a bunch of malarkey. And it is stale malarkey: Jared Bernstein, among others, noted back in August when Romney was spouting the 12-million-jobs promise that “that’s about what you’d expect in terms of job creation in a normal American job market over four years” regardless of who is in the White House.
In other words, Romney is selling a bland product to the middle class with slick marketing. What Obama is selling strikes voters as more of the same that they have been getting for the past four years: a plodding and uncertain slog out of the deep crater of the 2008 financial crash through the Washington thicket of partisan obstruction and occasional deal-cutting.
While the slogan of the campaign is “forward,” Obama is in danger of losing the argument over whether he has the stuff to actually move America to a different place from where it is today.
Democracy Corps’ polling on how competing economic narratives resonate with voters shows that “voters do not want a continuation; they want change. Indeed, they want bold change – and they are hoping that is what the president has in store.”
By more than a two-to-one margin—67 percent to 29 percent—voters in the Democracy Corps survey say major changes are called for to solve America’s problems. And there is no ambiguity on what Americans see as the number one issue: jobs (51 percent, compared to 43 percent for government deficits).
One message that has the potential of galvanizing voters includes the statement that “trillions of dollars of capital is idle and millions are unemployed, and that’s wrong. We need to put this money and people back to work right now rebuilding our nation’s energy, transportation, and water systems. This is the best way to grow the economy and reduce our debt burden.” In Democracy Corps’ polling, 64 percent agreed with this statement.
President Obama in fact has a specific proposal that would begin to do just that: the American Jobs Act. If it had been passed when Obama first introduced it in 2011, Macroeconomic Advisers estimated that this year it would have lowered unemployment by 1.3 million, likely bringing the unemployment rate closer to 7 percent or less. It was stonewalled by Republicans in Congress wedded to an agenda of tax cuts and deregulation for the 1 percent and austerity for the rest of America, and Romney has cheered them on.
The American Jobs Act is frankly best viewed as a down payment toward the full-employment agenda the country needs. Nonetheless, it is time for Obama to put the blueprint upon which the American Jobs Act was based at the forefront of his campaign. First, he should declare that 12 million jobs are not enough in four years, because they aren’t. That would still leave unemployment at an unacceptably high 6 percent or more in 2016, with unemployment rates still in double digits among African Americans and Hispanics, and in a significant number of urban and rural areas. We must do better than that, and we can.
Leverage the resources of the federal government to put people to work rebuilding our public assets – from roads and public transportation to schools and parks – and leave the next generation an infrastructure worthy of the 21st century. Resist being cowed by conservatives into retreating from investments in green energy and insist that Congress take action to continue tax credits for wind and solar energy, rather than for the fossil fuel industry that doesn’t need them and as a matter of national priorities should not have them. Repair the damage to communities done by the hemorrhaging of 600,000 public sector jobs, mostly at the state and local level, since 2009. Challenge the Washington austerity consensus in both parties with the demonstrated failure in Europe of the policies that Romney would impose in the United States with the aid of Republicans in Congress.
President Obama’s failure in the first debate was not one of politeness; it was one of passion and vision. In this second debate he can still project himself as more presidential and more likable than Romney. But he must present an economic program of boldness and urgency that matches the intensity of the continuing anxiousness that the middle class across the political spectrum continues to feel about the state of the economy. Only then will he have earned the passionate support of progressives who are anxious to move forward to a different economy than the one we have today.