During a focus group in Denver last week, Jeffrey Penny laid out his “criteria” for giving President Barack Obama his vote this year as he did in 2008.
“I just want to see specifics and quit the trash talk,” the 31-year-old web designer and construction worker says in the session conducted by the pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. “Just get down to business and figure this thing out.”
Obama probably hoped Penny and his fellow voters in the crucial swing state of Colorado were listening on June 14, when the president gave a major economic speech in Cleveland. For Democrats, June has been the cruelest month; there has been discouraging economic news; the re-election candidate has made mistakes and seems out of his comfort zone. The supposedly superior Obama campaign looks amateurish, and complaints about the operation’s insularity have reached a fever pitch.
Private conversations with a half-dozen of the smartest Democratic political thinkers -- all of whom have played at the highest levels of national campaigns, are genuine Obama backers, and almost never are consulted by the campaign -- reveal a consensus of advice for the president: Stop trying to tell voters they’re doing better, offer an optimistic sense of how, if re-elected, you would lead America to more prosperous times, and challenge Republicans with specifics.
Establishing that predicate will lend credibility to legitimate assaults on the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, for his policies, past and political persona. All the Democratic sages essentially agree with Hart’s conclusions last week.
“The challenge for the president is not the current conditions, but the huge expectations he set that have not been met,” said Hart, a leading Democratic pollster. “There is no road map, no program, no conviction of where the president wants to lead the country.”
Too often, it’s felt that Obama is playing political small ball or tactical games. Party critics note the fumbled response to the president’s much-criticized statement earlier this month that the “private sector is doing fine.”
When the president assembled the press, he really had nothing much to say about the European crisis or the domestic economy, so the slip dominated the story. After he later backtracked, the White House and campaign prolonged the story by insisting those remarks were being taken out of context by Romney and the press.
Not so. Go to the White House website and check the June 8 transcript.
All politicians make misstatements. And there was a plausible follow: corporate profits are soaring, the largest companies in the Standard & Poor’s 100 Index (SPXL1) have increased earnings for 11 consecutive quarters and are now more profitable than ever, while demand for U.S. government securities reached a record last year. Corporate chief executive officers are as well compensated as ever, and the most recent figures show that the inflation-adjusted incomes of the 1 percent of wealthiest Americans rose by an average of $105,637 in one year.
The problem, the president could have declared, while citing these numbers, is that the middle class and small business have been left behind. Saying so would have afforded an opportunity for Obama to contrast his views on what to do with Romney’s emphasis on the more affluent.
This is what the president laid out in his Cleveland economic address last week. He framed the case and choices better than usual (in an otherwise overlong speech). Maybe it’s a start.
Another complaint is that the president has few effective surrogates on the economy. The best are Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton, though the latter has created problems in the process.
Most of the outside Democrats consulted had few issues with the attacks on Romney, as long as that’s not the dominant message. One operative likens these to body punches a boxer throws in the early rounds, softening up his opponent for the knockout.
Romney, they say, has made his private-equity experience his centerpiece credential, and he has exposed vulnerabilities going back to his first campaign -- an unsuccessful 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy. Some early soundings suggest voters see him as rich and out of touch. Another series of focus groups done by Democrats James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Erica Seifert reached conclusions similar to Hart’s on the pressing need for an Obama message on the economy.
“They do not trust him because of who he is for and because he’s out of touch with ordinary people; he is vulnerable on the Ryan budget and its impact on people; he is vulnerable on the choices over taxes,” these Democrats wrote, referring to the spending blueprint drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that Romney has praised.
The central challenge, the other Democratic consultants say, is a compelling narrative from the president and campaign, which they describe as unusually insular and arrogant.
The campaign has an almost mystical confidence in sophisticated technology and in its organization, assets that only matter in a razor-tight race. Further, these other strategists say, the Obama camp is no more justified in its belief that this campaign is like a rerun -- with the uniforms changed -- of 2004, when a shakily popular Republican president won re-election, than it would be to believe that 2012 is a reprise of 1980, when an incumbent president was thrown out for non-performance.
Any outreach by Obama’s Chicago acolytes to hear out these arguments is limited and superficial.
A longtime Democratic strategist predicts defeat unless there is some boldness. He offers an idea: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as popular as any American figure, has said she plans to resign after the election. Obama should persuade her to leave her post a month or so early and campaign for him. She might add some electricity and she wouldn’t be likely to commit the same occasional discipline lapses as her husband.
The secretary probably would reject such a suggestion, and team Obama wouldn’t ask. They don’t believe they need help. More than a few Democrats disagree.
(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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