Four years ago, Barack Obama took the country by storm in his run for the presidency. Young, attractive, and full of energy, he spoke of change in a way that gave a sense of hope to many voters who were anxious for just that.
Of course the “change” Obama intended was never specified in concrete terms. He was too clever to spell out just what he meant by the word or how his presidency would be different from those of his predecessors.
Some of his then admirers assumed that he intended to change the tone in Washington by stressing collegiality and compromise. Others believed that he would emphasize problem prevention, thereby reducing the need to engage in problem solving. And still others were convinced that he was the liberals’ version of the knight in shining armor who would address the causes so long ignored by the country’s elected leaders.
Of course, as it turned out, Obama’s “change” was just a campaign slogan. It didn’t really mean anything in terms of his presidency. Oh, he did try to get along with everyone for a while (until the Republicans beat him up every time he tried to offer an accommodating perspective on any given issue). And he did speak to a need to be proactive instead of reactive in his first speeches to Congress and the nation. And his commitment to universal health care reform sounded initially like it could be a truly progressive entitlement program until his Congressional allies turned it into the constitutionally-suspect bureaucratic mess it ultimately became.
As he retreated from believing in real change as a guiding principle, Obama became just another politician who also happened to be the country’s president. And, as most of the presidents in the nation’s history have been wont to do, he moved (and sometimes stumbled) from one crisis to the next, trying to put out fires that could have been prevented (or at least lessened) with bolder leadership that was less concerned with political repercussions and more with the real needs of the country.
Obama hasn’t been a failure, far from it. But he also hasn’t created the kind of record that commands the fealty of America’s fickle electorate, which largely adopts the simple “how-do-I-feel-about-the-country” test when deciding whether to give a sitting president a second term.
And so it is that Obama now faces a tough re-election campaign. Mitt Romney may not be a great candidate (indeed, in many respects he seems eminently beatable), but he won’t need to be if the economy continues its faltering ways (as last week’s jobs report indicated it is).
Without a compelling message (or a sudden and entirely unlikely upturn in the nation’s economic fortunes in the next few months), voters won’t be inclined to remember the near disaster Obama inherited when he took office, with the country seemingly on the verge of a second Great Depression, but will instead vote for change once again, this time against Obama rather than for him.
But Obama’s campaign so far seems intent on replaying Harry Truman’s re-election campaign of 1948, when the incumbent president successfully blamed a do-nothing Congress for the nation’s economic ills, thereby pulling off an unexpected victory over the Mitt Romney-like Thomas E. Dewey.
But that was then and this is now, and the blame-Congress strategy that Obama’s campaign team seems to have adopted won’t work if the unemployment figures continue to range between 8 and 8.5 percent.
On the stump, Obama is ever the politician. His standard speech is laden with the typical stuff that politicians use to rally their troops. “The other guys are the problem. Re-elect my team and send them a message to work for the country instead of for themselves.”
It may get the base motivated, but it won’t convince the independents whose votes will determine the election.
To have a real chance at re-election, Obama needs to get professorial. Instead of railing about an obstructionist Congress, he needs to explain what he wants Congress to do and why what he wants Congress to do will work.
Thus, his basic points in his stump speech, instead of being applause lines, should be these:
“We need to re-invigorate our economy by creating demand – demand for goods and services, for products and inventions, for the better life that has always been the American dream. And that demand can only come from consumers who have good jobs that provide them with disposable income.
“With disposable income, demand will increase, and once demand increases, all of the companies that have been sitting on their profits for the last four years will be motivated to use those profits by making more products for the consumers who want them and have the money to pay for them.
“That’s how our free enterprise system works. For-profit businesses only exist to make profits. If they can sell their widgets, they will make them. If they can’t, they won’t. And when they aren’t making their widgets, they aren’t hiring people. And that resulting unemployment reduces demand, thereby creating a vicious cycle that leads to recessions.
“We’ve struggled to break out of that cycle, but lowered tax rates aren’t enough incentive for companies to justify making more widgets. Only consumer demand will provide that incentive. And to create that demand, the government must step in.
“Happily, we have the need and can provide the work projects that will motivate companies to hire workers, who will then be the consumers who will create the demand for more widgets. And as more companies make more widgets, they’ll hire more workers who, with their pay checks, will create still more demand.
“In a failing economy, austerity is the worst possible remedy. It only increases the problem. Instead, the federal government must create the incentives for businesses to re-invest in the country. Our consumers will the lift us out of our economic malaise by creating the demand that will be the engine for our revival.”
The professorial Obama has the ability to build on those lines. If he does, he’ll beat Romney. If he doesn’t, the economy will beat him.