11:29 AM CDT, September 5, 2012
Democrats and Republicans can surely agree on one thing — if the presidential election were a popularity contest (which it isn't, as Al Gore famously observed when he ran against the affable George W. Bush), the current incumbent would be a shoo-in for reelection. No offense to Ann and Mitt Romney, but if there's one thing that Barack and Michelle Obama have, it's star power, a point made clear early in the Democratic National Convention.
But President Obama isn't running for class president or Homecoming King. The question before voters is whether he is the best person to hold the highest office in the land. Charisma is an asset, perhaps, but the most popular kid in school isn't necessarily the one you want running the place. Leadership requires much more than likability.
That puts the impetus on Mr. Obama to this week not just sell himself to voters, rouse his party's base, or defend his four years in office against the attacks of his opponent. When he accepts his party's nomination Thursday, he needs to articulate an agenda. And reviving the platitudes of 2008, what the GOP so often ridicules as the "hope and change" promises, will not accomplish that.
Last week, we observed that Mr. Romney needed to explain his own agenda and fell woefully short. The Republican National Convention and the candidate played it safe, sticking mostly to his campaign pitch of management experience, less government and promises of job creation. Even by convention standards, his acceptance speech was detail-light and so laser-focused on promises of future prosperity that he failed to even mention Afghanistan and our protracted military involvement in the region, an extraordinary oversight given that U.S. soldiers are still in harm's way.
Mr. Obama could easily make the same mistake. Already, the DNC has followed a script in Charlotte remarkably similar to the Tampa example, highlighted by a parade of attacks on the Republican ticket and appearances by rags-to-riches (or at least rags-to-success) speakers clearly intended to appeal to women and Hispanic voters, two demographics that might well swing the election one way or the other. The "product" may be different, but the sales pitch is largely the same.
No doubt Mr. Obama's political advisers are even now telling him to not give Republicans any new material to misrepresent and attack in the fact-checker-free campaign. Yet if Mr. Obama takes the stage and the totality of his economic policy is to extend the Bush tax cuts for those earning less than $250,000, will a single undecided voter actually be persuaded? Moreover, if he wins, will he have any mandate at all?
The reality of the next four years is that no matter who is elected, the political gridlock and polarization of the last two years is almost certain to continue. No party is going to achieve a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the U.S. Senate. Nothing of consequence will get done under such a scenario. Yet the fiscal cliff looms, as does the threat of another economic recession. The next president will have to be the Great Compromiser. As much as Mr. Romney seems incapable of that task, it is Mr. Obama who has already tried and failed in that role.
We would not advocate that the president take the stage and promise to raise taxes as Walter Mondale did in 1984 (only to get thrashed by an incumbent Ronald Reagan). But it would be notable if instead of wholly pandering to the party faithful, Mr. Obama would look into their eyes and tell them that raising taxes on the rich was no cure-all for the deficit and that they, too, would have to embrace potentially painful budget reductions like those identified by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.
Mr. Obama has said as much before, but in the midst of such Democratic hoopla and eat-the-rich sentiment, it would surely offer a contrast to his opponent and serve as a reminder that when he and GOP leaders argued over these matters over the last two years, it was he who was willing to make concessions and challenge his base, not tea party-driven Republicans who simply could not abide any sacrifice from the wealthy even when the nation's economic well-being hangs in the balance.
Last week, the question of the moment was, who is Mitt Romney? This week, it's what would a second Obama term look like? Most voters, aside from the knuckleheads who still insist that the president is a socialist Muslim terrorist from Kenya, know who Mr. Obama is, and they like him. How he would handle the next four years is not so clear.