Longtime strategists say that the lack of a compelling plan for the next four years is hurting the president's standing against Mitt Romney.
In a stark warning on the eve of the second presidential debate, veteran Democratic strategists Stanley B. Greenberg and James Carville write in a newly released memo that the campaign "has reached a tipping point" that could cost President Obama reelection if he does not present a more compelling vision for the next four years.
"The first debate really did disrupt the race and presents a painful real-time test of what happens when the president tries to convince people of progress and offer[s] a very modest vision of future change," the two say in a Democracy Corps memo co-written with Erica Seifert, a senior associate at Greenberg's polling firm. "Voters are not looking for continuity, but changes that help the average Joe."
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In an interview, Greenberg said that at the first debate, Mitt Romney caused many voters who are worried about the nation's direction to view him in a new light, mostly by convincing them he had aggressive plans to improve the economy -- even as Obama conveyed little about goals of his own. After the debate, Greenberg said, undecided and loosely committed voters "are looking at Romney. Before [the debate] I thought they were trying to get to Obama. But I don't think that's true anymore. I think now they are considering Romney, which is why the next debate is pretty critical."
The memo is based on two national polls and focus groups conducted in September, as well as on dial groups and focus groups conducted after the first debate.
Greenberg and Carville have been perhaps the loudest Democratic voices arguing that Obama must define the race as much as possible as a referendum on the nation's direction for the next four years, rather than as an opportunity to continue the progress he points to over his first term. In the memo, they and Seifert write that voters in their groups watching the debate tuned out Obama "when he spoke about economic progress or ... the progress of the last four years."
That backward-looking focus, centered on defending his first term, they write, gave Romney "the opportunity to be heard as the voice of change." And that, they insist, is dangerous for Obama because "it is clear ... that voters do not want a continuation, they want change." Moreover, they write, for many voters "conservatives have plausible things to say about the future, particularly on spending and debt."
At the first debate, Obama disappointed Democrats by failing to mount either an energetic critique of Romney or to project passion about his own second-term plans. Greenberg said both are important but that the latter may be most critical for Obama in these final two encounters. "The biggest thing is to be clear he does have plans and he wants to bring further change -- that's what he has to communicate," he argued.
Greenberg said the group's polling shows receptivity to a message that links economic growth to greater public investment, as Obama is urging. Yet to convince voters he can deliver better results over the next four years, he said, Obama probably has to provide more detail than the first debate and his convention acceptance speech, which filled in little about his second-term plans.
"At the time of the convention, goals were enough ... when Romney was mainly attacking Obama's performance and offering no plans," he said. "But not now. Now, the voter needs to hear much more specificity and boldness about [the president's] plans."
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