Obama, retooled and recycled

    In his latest attempt to craft an economic message that will resonate with recession-weary swing voters, President Obama signaled in a speech yesterday that he no longer intends to highlight the slow recovery. He can ill afford to frame the race as a referendum on his own stewardship – Americans are in no mood to be swayed by macroeconomic statistics – so instead he’s seeking to frame the race as a stark choice.In his view, it’s not just a choice between Obama and Romney. It’s a choice between Obama and Romney – plus Romney’s Republican baggage. One theme popped up repeatedly yesterday:”Governor Romney and his allies in Congress…””Gov Romney and his allies…””…the economic vision of Mr. Romney and his allies in Congress…” “Mr. Romney and the current Republican Congress…””Governor Romney disagrees with my vision.  His allies in Congress disagree with my vision.””Governor Romney and the Republicans who run Congress believe…”Perhaps it’s mere coincidence, but Obama yesterday did exactly what Democratic pollsters have been urging him to do. Earlier this week, Stan Greenberg, Erica Seifert, and James Carville – having just conducted focus groups with swing voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania – urged Obama to ditch his campaign pitch about how things are slowly and steadily getting better. They warned in a public memo, “We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not more to a new narrative.” They said that there should be “minimal discussion of the recovery and jobs created” – because voters aren’t buying the stats. Instead, they said that Obama should exude “maximal empathy” for the challenges that middle-class Americans are facing. And he could best do that by drawing a sharp contrast between himself and Romney/GOP. Citing their focus group voters, they wrote: “Romney is very vulnerable. 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 (House GOP’s) Ryan budget and its impact on people. He is vulnerable on the choices over taxes.”Sure enough, Obama spent much of his time yesterday detailing the proposed congressional Republican cuts in popular programs that benefit the middle class – and stressing that Romney is in sync with those Republican priorities, as well as the same Republican priorities (tax cuts for the wealthy, across-the-board deregulation) that helped trigger the great recession in the first place. Therefore: “If you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney. You should vote for his allies in Congress and take them at their word that they will take America down this (backward) path. And Mr. Romney is qualified to deliver on that plan.”This retooled Obama message is obviously a far cry from the hope-and-change thematics of 2008. This message is all about defining Obama as the lesser of two evils, as the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. Granted, there could be some political traction in tying Romney to his fellow Republicans – according to the latest bipartisan NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, only 32 percent of Americans view the GOP favorably, while 43 percent view it unfavorably – but Democrats aren’t wildly popular either (their numbers are 39-40), and, on a separate question, a 41 percent plurality of Americans said they are “not at all confident” that Obama “has the right set of goals and policies to improve the economy.”Things might change – it’s only June – but right now it appears that Obama is working within narrow parameters. He can’t exude too much optimism, because voters don’t feel optimistic. (A focus group voter in Ohio: “It’s like, how are things getting better? Where? I don’t see it. Makes me mad.”) On the other hand, if he goes too far with his contrast theme, attacking Romney and the Republicans in tandem, then he risks the charge of being too negative and insufficiently optimistic.But somehow this debate seems all too familiar. Consider this Obama passage, again framing the race not as a referendum on him, but as a choice between two political philosophies: “Now we have a choice as a nation. We can return to the failed economic policies of the past, or we can keep building a stronger future. We can go backward, or we can keep moving forward.”Obama uttered those lines in a speech two years ago, on June 3, 2010. So his ostensibly new message is somewhat recycled. And we all remember how well that choice-not-a-referendum theme turned out for him in the ’10 congressional elections.He said something else in that June ’10 speech, a line that’s just as true today: “It’s not going to be a real recovery until people can feel it in their own lives.” His ’12 parameters will remain narrow unless people begin to feel it.——-Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Granted, for millions of younger Americans, any talk of Watergate is akin to a seminar on ancient Greece, but my Friday newspaper column deals with how little we have learned its lessons.

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