Presidential Self-Promotion and the “Referendum” Trap

The public discussion over the cover package in the April/May issue of the Washington Monthly, “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama,” is getting underway. At WaPo’s Plumb Line, Greg Sargent quotes Paul Glastris’ argument for a more robust presidential effort to promote his own achievements, and then observes:

I’m going to reiterate that Obama’s ability to speak up for his own record, as Glastris puts it, rests almost entirely on whether he can successfully remind the American people of just how awful a situation he inherited. Obama has now begun to do this, as the campaign video he released today demonstrates.

Obama’s overall record simply can’t be judged properly without a clear appreciation of the fact that he inherited the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. If the American people aren’t prepared to factor this into their decision this fall — and this is particularly true if the recovery doesn’t continue accelerating — then Obama very well not get reelected. Obama is one of the best public communicators of our generation, but getting the American people to take the long view of his presidency amid continued economic suffering is going to be a formidable political challenge. His entire legacy may rest on whether he can pull it off.

I agree with both Paul and Greg, but with two qualifications.

First, while the President must of course explain and defend his record, too much dwelling on past accomplishments as opposed to future plans can reinforce the Republican strategy of making the 2012 elections a referendum not only on the president’s record, but on general perceptions of life during the last four years. Indeed, given the emptiness (on some subjects) and radicalism (on others) of the GOP agenda, you can be sure Mitt Romney will lift heaven and earth to keep the focus on the incumbent. If the president runs an entirely positive (as opposed to comparative) campaign, he could help the opposition turn the election into a de facto referendum and lose the opportunity to quite legitimately demand a choice between the two candidates’ visions and agendas for the future.

Second, while reminding Americans of the conditions he inherited from his Republican predecessor is always in order (and necessary, in fact, to any comparative effort to ask whether a return to Bush’s policies or a more conservative version of them is what voters really want), too much talk about that will sound defensive, backward looking, and when it comes to the details of the financial crisis, confusing.

It will require an unusually deft touch for Obama to simultaneously defend himself from attacks, explain his accomplishments (and their context), offer a forward-looking agenda, and also keep the focus on GOP radicalism. But that’s what he needs to do unless he just wants to hope that improving conditions in the country and Republican mistakes grant him re-election by default.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.