Needed: A Big Theory of Managing National Challenges

Now that not much of anybody is maintaining that “debates don’t matter,” and with Mitt Romney having pulled slightly ahead in the RCP poll average, there’s lots of advice being offered to Barack Obama for tonight’s town-hall meeting. Not that he or his people are reading blogs right now, but I do think a lot of the talk about the president’s need for a clear second-term “plan” or “agenda” may be a bit excessive. He doesn’t, in my opinion, really have to compete with Romney’s various plans or agendas, since we’ve had the benefit of watching him govern for four years. But what he does need, very badly, is a direct statement of where he thinks the country is right now, and how the choice voters make on November 6 will shape the direction of the country.

This need not, and should not, be any complex theory. It could be as simple as this:

Americans know from their own lives that we are in the middle of some historic challenges, as tough as anything we’ve faced in our history: rapidly changing technology; globalization; economic interdependence; threats to our prosperity and our security that emerge with great speed; and a historic meltdown in our financial system. We’re also undergoing large and irreversible changes in how our families are structured, how we earn life’s necessities and raise children.

We have a big choice this year and every year: we can face those challenges together as a community, asking those who have benefitted most from the blessings of our society to contribute a bit more from their comfortable means to help make sure that all Americans have the opportunity to make ends meet, get ahead, and contribute their own unique talents and skills to our storehouse of human capital; or we can entrust our futures to those with money and power, in Washington and on Wall Street, and hope for the best.

We tried that for eight long years as we entered this century, and not only did it produce less growth and more inequality, but we lost pace with change and wasted the chance to keep America stronger than ever. We’ve been repairing the damage the last four years, and are ready to move ahead again. But now we’re being told the only mistakes made by my predecessor as president was that he was too generous, too caring, and not tough enough on kids and working people and our allies and adversaries around the world. So on November 6, the American people really are choosing between going forward and going back–between facing our challenges together or trusting the wealthy for charity–and between building on the progress we’ve made and engaging in a radical experiment that involves forfeiting our right to self-government and forgetting everything we learned in the twentieth century about how to create middle-class prosperity while taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves.

You get the drift. It doesn’t have to be that long a rap, and it doesn’t need to be presented all at once. Obama needs to tell us his understanding of how this election fits into the narrative of recent American history. He hasn’t done it yet, and while Bill Clinton touched on some of these points in his convention speech, even he hasn’t quite put it together. It’s nothing more nor less than a basic statement of progressive values contrasted with the radically conservative values that now more than ever have seized the GOP, regardless of the identity of its candidates or the specifics of their “plans.”

If Obama can pull that off, then it won’t matter as much how many “points” he scores in the debate, stylistic or substantive, or how “aggressive” or “energetic” he is. He has yet to present a full rationale for re-election, and for the “two futures” between which voters must choose, and tonight would be a real good time to start laying it out with conviction.

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.