You would think that the first law of presidential campaigning would be to take credit for your accomplishments. And yet the current contest features two men who are unwilling even to bring up some of their most important achievements in office.
Barack Obama’s first landmark action as president, for instance, was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus—a $787 billion infusion of cash that most economists believe helped keep the economy from falling into a depression. The stimulus added as many as 3.3 million jobs and boosted GDP by between 1.7 percent and 4.5 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Weeks after it went into effect unemployment claims began to subside, and twelve months later the private sector began to produce more jobs than it was losing— something that it has been doing ever since. Yet because the economy lost so many jobs during the recession and unemployment remains so stubbornly high, average Americans don’t feel that the stimulus had any real effect on the economy, and indeed many think it was a huge waste of money. So the word “stimulus” never leaves the president’s lips.
Similarly, Obama almost never talks about the actions he took to keep the crippled banking industry from completely collapsing and driving the economy further into a ditch. Beginning in the spring of 2009, his Treasury Department lured $140 billion in private money to recapitalize the nation’s nineteen biggest banks by imposing “stress tests” to determine the strength of their balance sheets and creating a public-private partnership to buy their “toxic assets.” These efforts got the banks on their feet at basically zero cost to the taxpayer. Yet Obama seldom mentions this astonishing feat for the simple reason that voters are still furious at bankers and think of all government efforts to help them as synonymous with a “bailout.” (For the record, the actual bailout happened on George W. Bush’s watch, though Obama supported it.)
Romney, too, has almost totally avoided talking about his record as governor of Massachusetts. He gave twenty-five speeches in June and July and referred to his governorship only once. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that he doesn’t have all that much to brag about. Jobs grew in the Commonwealth during his tenure, though not by a lot. Unemployment went down, but only by a point. Romney balanced the state’s budget every year (which the state constitution mandated him to do) and did so without raising taxes, but he boosted a variety of fees, and bequeathed to his successor a nearly $1 billion deficit. He left office with a 39 percent approval rating.
Still, Romney can claim one enormous achievement: a 2006 health insurance expansion law that has made Massachusetts the only state in the union to achieve near-universal health coverage. Since 2006, health care costs in the state have risen no faster or, in the individual market, slower than the national average. Polls show that two out of three people in the state approve of “Romneycare.” Yet Romney is reluctant even to mention this singular policy triumph because it was the template for Obamacare, which he has promised to repeal.
White House contenders who distance themselves from their own records do so at their own peril—a lesson I saw play out firsthand in 2000. That summer I was assigned to cowrite President Bill Clinton’s Democratic Convention speech. My boss, chief White House speechwriter Terry Edmonds, and I came up with the idea of organizing the speech chronologically, a third on the past (the Clinton-Gore record), a third on the present (the stakes in the election), a third on the future (Al Gore’s agenda). We sent a memo explaining our plan to the vice president’s office. Word then came back that we were to make the speech 90 percent about the past. Hoo-kay, we thought, whatever you guys want. So we drafted a speech that was backward looking but triumphal.
You may remember the speech. It began with Clinton’s image on the Jumbotron, walking like a prizefighter through the maze of tunnels beneath L.A.’s Staple Center and emerging to the roar of thousands of adoring Democrats. The speech that followed was a stem-winding, double-barreled, kitchen-sink recitation of every policy accomplishment and positive outcome of the eight-year Clinton-Gore administration that we could think of—and a number of others that the president helpfully reminded us of. “More than 22 million new jobs,” “the lowest child poverty rate in twenty years,” “the biggest expansion of college aid since the GI Bill,” “more than 100,000 new community police officers,” “set aside more land in the lower forty-eight states than any administration since Teddy Roosevelt,” “extending the life of the Medicare trust fund for twenty- six years,” “dramatically improved diabetes care,” “stopping brutal ethnic cleansing in the Balkans,” “brought Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO.” On and on it went, forty minutes of what pundits disparagingly call a “laundry list” but which the president’s supporters loved because, you know, that’s why they hired the guy, to get stuff like that done.
The mystery of why Gore’s office would want us to focus the president’s speech almost solely on the Clinton-Gore record was revealed few days later, when the vice president took the stage, gave his wife, Tipper, an extended kiss, pronounced himself “my own man,” and said almost nothing (200 words in a 5,500-word speech) about the Clinton-Gore record. Concerned that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was hurting him in the polls, Gore used the speech to put distance between himself and the president. That was understandable. The scandal was a drag on Gore’s popularity. But the obvious need to detach himself from Clinton personally inexplicably devolved into the belief that if he were to talk about, say, the 22 million jobs created, or the turning of deficits into surpluses, voters would somehow think “blow job.”
What was especially crazy about the Gore campaign’s strategy was that the vice president had a genuine claim on the administration’s record. He was, at that point, the most involved and powerful vice president in U.S. history. He had his own large, crack White House staff, his own policy initiatives—reinventing government, managing the U.S./Russian relationship—and more influence on the president’s decisions than anyone other than Hillary Clinton. He was a strong advocate for what would turn out to be some of the administration’s most consequential actions, from welfare reform to fighting off GOP attacks on the EPA to taking a tough line with the Serbs in Bosnia. No one would have denied him substantial credit for the Clinton-Gore record. And yet, until the final weeks of the race, Gore largely avoided claiming that credit. It was the single biggest mistake of his campaign.
Now we have two candidates making the same mistake. It’s not at all clear that Romney can reverse that error, given the fullthroated denunciation of Obamacare he needed in order to win the nomination. Obama, too, is limited in his ability to talk about his policy accomplishments because, unlike Clinton, he does not have—at least not yet—a booming economy for which his policies can credibly claim credit.
The truth is, no president could have quickly turned around an economy as badly damaged as this one was in 2009. History shows that recessions caused by financial crisis always take years to heal, and while Obama’s stimulus prevented a depression, it was nowhere near big enough to make up for the loss of demand caused by a 40 percent drop in the average American’s net worth. But as Michael Grunwald explains in his new book, The New New Deal, the administration used the stimulus to make investments and spur change in everything from green energy to medical research to public schools. These and other big moves during Obama’s first term, like the health care and financial reforms laws, have the potential to pay substantial economic dividends in coming years. Obama needs to tell the story of these accomplishments and how transformative they could be.
A message about long-term payoffs might not seem like one today’s hard-pressed voters want to hear. But as James Carville and Stan Greenberg argue in their campaign book, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid, swing voters don’t believe that happy days are just over the horizon. They know that the economy, and their place in it, is in a precarious state that is years in the making and will take years to get out of. If Obama can find a way to talk to them honestly about what he’s already done as president, they might give him a chance to keep doing it.