Obama's Speech in Cleveland

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I would have been less disappointed with Obama's Cleveland speech if it hadn't been trailed so elaborately as a big event. The speech had some good points, but this was no "reset". There wasn't really anything new, and it didn't help that he talked too long and kept repeating himself. The tone was improved, with less class warfare and fewer efforts to thrill the Democratic base as though nobody else might be listening. Now and then he explicitly addressed undecided voters, but without much conviction and it wasn't sustained. It was an uncompelling unmemorable performance.

What does Obama need to do? I disagree with those who say that he must make this election either a referendum on his record or a choice between him and Romney, but not both. Nonsense. Unless Obama is about to disown his record and promise something brand new after November, he has to defend his first term. Unavoidably, the election involves a judgement about what he's done. At the same time nobody is going to vote for Romney without thinking about what that might mean and measuring it against Obama's record and platform. The election isn't either forward-looking or backward-looking. It's both. There's no trade-off for Obama in defending his policies (which are very defensible) while also attacking the GOP program (which is eminently attackable). The speech was pretty good on the second, but rotten on the first.

Obama has been bad throughout--amazingly bad--at explaining and defending his policies. His defense of the health-care reform, for instance, concentrates on the denial of insurance to newly covered groups if the act should be repealed. Voters understand that the reform widened coverage, and I'd be stunned if anybody thought that was a bad thing. The reform isn't unpopular because it covered more people. Its unpopular because it's unfathomably complicated, because it threatens great disruption to a system that voters are accustomed to and most quite like, and because they don't believe it's going to end up costing them nothing. It's unpopular because the Democrats did all this knowing that most voters were unhappy, and pressed on as though it didn't matter. We were assured the selling of the policy would be done after the reform became law. We're still waiting.

This is just one instance of the administration's biggest weakness: the White House seems stone-deaf to the country's doubts about its policies. The polling on health-reform, the polling on deficits and debt, the election of Scott Brown, the mid-term rout of House Democrats, Wisconsin--it's as though these things never happened. It's not even that they're dismissed, which would be bad enough. They aren't even acknowledged. They aren't even noticed. The White House just carries on regardless.

The first thing I was looking for in the speech was, "I hear you." He didn't say it.

The second thing was a program for the second term. That's still missing too. Romney and the GOP have a bad, unworkable fiscal plan. It's right to attack it and spell out what it would mean. If voters can be made to understand it, they'll be less disposed to vote Republican. But Obama's assault on the GOP plan is fatally undermined by the fact that he lacks one of his own. His budget fails even to stabilize long-term public debt at its elevated post-recession level, let alone bring it back down so that the public sector is ready for the next emergency. What he said about bringing "domestic spending" down to its lowest level for decades was a clumsy effort to mislead. (You can't boast about all the necessary and enlightened spending you're undertaking and also claim to have cut spending to the bone.) He was referring, presumably, to domestic discretionary non-security spending--which is a sliver of the budget. Obama still has no plan for controlling entitlement spending, which is the real problem, and no plan to pay for it except to raise taxes on the rich, which won't suffice.

Obama said the election is a choice between two fundamentally different visions of America's future, that Washington is stalemated, and that November can break the stalemate. This is no good. First, November is unlikely to break the stalemate, whoever wins, and voters know it. The new president's job will be the same as now: to make a stalemated Washington work, after a fashion, not to execute a partisan mandate. Obama has to show he can still be the man to do that. Second, when it comes to competing visions, is Obama quite sure voters prefer a future of high public spending and high taxes to one of low public spending and low taxes? That's the choice many voters think he's offering. Rather than pitching a Democratic transformation of the country as the alternative to the GOP transformation, he'd do better to offer moderation, pragmatism and measured fiscal restraint to the GOP alternative of ideology, extremism and fiscal incoherence.

I don't think America wants to be transformed, or wants radicals of any kind in charge. It wants Washington to work and the country to be mended. If I were Obama, I'd get myself a second-term program and dial the clash of big ideas right back.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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