Obama is Making his Best Case for Reelection…Behind Closed Doors

On the eve of Obama’s convention speech, I was asked by NPR’s Neil Conan what the president’s most important task was. Here’s what I said:

GLASTRIS: Neal, well, the most important thing for tomorrow night is for President Obama to weave the substantial achievements of the first four years into a picture for the public so that they know what he’s done, remind them what he’s done and leverage that into a vision of what’s to come. We hear that he’s going to be more specific about a second term agenda. I’m hoping he will. It’s got to be rooted, though, in what he’s already done.

I wasn’t the only one offering this sort of advice. According to Politico, before the convention James Carville and Stan Greenberg “called upon Obama to use his acceptance speech as a mini-State of the Union address laying out a detailed agenda, as Bill Clinton did in 1996.”

Alas, that’s not what Obama did in Charlotte. He sprinkled his speech with mentions of his achievements, but not in a way that painted a coherent story, and he offered only a few goals for his second term (a million manufacturing jobs etc.) without any explanation of what he would do specifically to reach them or how they might be connect to the policies he’d already implemented.

In the first debate, Obama compounded a lethargic performance by again not making a coherent case for how the achievements of his first term laid the groundwork for job growth in the second and what he would do to build on those achievements. He failed to do so again in the second and third debates, despite being far more aggressive in taking on Romney.

Finally, in the last few days, the Obama campaign has put out a booklet that lays out in an organized way the specifics of a second term agenda, and in his speeches he’s kinda-sorta begun explaining how those specific policies relate to what he’s done in the first term. But the astonishing thing, as TNR’s Alec MacGillis notes, is that he’s articulating all this most crisply and effectively only behind closed doors. Read, for instance, the following passage from the “off the record” interview he gave to the Des Moines Register (which the White House reluctantly later released), and consider whether you think the president would be in better shape in the polls now if he’d been making the case for his candidacy this way in front of millions of voters when he had the chance to:

Obviously, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last four years. A lot of it was responding to the most severe economic emergency we’ve had since the Great Depression. And whether it was saving the auto industry, stabilizing the financial system, making sure that we got into a growth mode again and started putting people back to work, we have made real progress.

But people are obviously still hurting in a lot of parts of the country. And that’s why last night I tried to reiterate a very specific plan that we’ve put forward to make sure that the economy is growing, we’re bringing down our deficit, and we’re creating jobs.

So, number one, I’m very interested in continuing to build on the work that we did not just in the auto industry but some of the other industrial sectors, bringing manufacturing back to our shores; changing our tax code to reward companies that are investing here. There is a real sense that companies are starting to make decisions about insourcing, and some modest incentives I think can make a real difference in terms of us seeing continued manufacturing growth, which obviously has huge ramifications throughout the economy, including in the service sector of the economy.

Number two, education, which has obviously been a priority for us over the last four years — I want to build on what we’ve done with Race to the Top, but really focus on STEM education — math, science, technology, computer science. And part of that is helping states to hire teachers with the highest standards and training in these subjects so we can start making sure that our kids are catching up to some of the other industrialized world.

Two million more slots in community colleges that allows our workers to retrain, but also young people who may not want to go to a four-year college, making sure that the training they’re receiving is actually for jobs that are out there right now. And we want to continue to work — building on the progress we’ve done over the last four years — to keep tuition low for those who do attend either a two-year or a four-year college.

Number three, controlling our own energy. This obviously is of interest to Iowa. Our support of biofuels, our support of wind energy has created thousands of jobs in Iowa. But even more importantly, this is going to be the race to the future. The country that controls new sources of energy, not just the traditional sources, is going to have a huge competitive advantage 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now.

So in addition to doubling our fuel-efficiency standards on cars and trucks, what we want to do is make sure that we’re producing new technologies here — long-lasting batteries, making sure that we are developing the wind and solar and other energy sources that may provide us a breakthrough. In the meantime, we’re still producing oil and natural gas at a record pace, but we’ve got to start preparing for the future. And as I said, it creates jobs right now in Iowa.

Number four, I want to reduce our deficit. It’s got to be done in a balanced way. I’ve already cut a trillion dollars’ worth of spending. I’m willing to do more. I’m willing to cut more, and I’m willing to work with Democrats and Republicans when it comes to making some adjustments that bring down the cost of our health care programs, which obviously are the biggest drivers of our deficit.

But nobody who looks at the numbers thinks it’s realistic for us to actually reduce our deficit in a serious way without also having some revenue. And we’ve identified tax rates going up to the Clinton rates for income above $250,000; making some adjustments in terms of the corporate tax side that could actually bring down the corporate tax overall, but broaden the base and close some loopholes. That would be good for our economy, and it would be good for reducing our deficit.

And finally, using some of the war savings to put people back to work on infrastructure — roads, bridges. We’ve fallen behind in that area. And we can — this deferred maintenance, we can put people to work, back, right now, and at the same time make sure that our economy is more competitive over the long term.

So that’s sort of a summary of the things I want to accomplish to create jobs and economic growth. Obviously, there are other items on the agenda. We need to get immigration reform done, and I’m fully committed to doing that. I think there’s still more work on the energy efficiency side that we can do — helping to retrofit our buildings, schools, hospitals, so that they’re energy efficient — because if we achieved efficiencies at the level of, let’s say, Japan, we could actually cut our power bill by about 20-25 percent, and that would have the added benefit of taking a whole bunch of carbon out of the atmosphere.

So there are some things that we can do, but obviously the key focus is making sure that the economy is growing. That will facilitate all the other work that we do.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.