Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Barack Obama will ask the country tonight to give him four more years as president. It will also be his opportunity to tell the country just exactly what he wants to do with them.
Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan is “Forward,” but neither he nor his Republican adversary, Mitt Romney, have laid out detailed plans for what is to come.
Rather, the campaigns have spent the bulk of their energy and time arguing over whether Obama’s first-term policies — such as health care, the stimulus and the auto bailout — were a success or a failure.
Each has accused the other of being ideologically wrong on the economy, but neither has ticked off the particulars behind their promises to come up with new policies to fix the country between now and 2016.
Romney and Obama accuse each other of being vague on the future. Last week, Romney was roundly criticized by Democrats for sharing almost no details of his plan to create 12 million new jobs through exploiting energy resources, championing small businesses, and balancing the budget.
“The biggest thing coming out of the Republican convention was they really failed to tell people or leave anyone with a strong impression about what they would do for four years,” senior Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said. “You couldn’t have watched that convention and thought, ‘Here are the ideas to move the country forward.’ We will not let that happen here in Charlotte.”
But beyond broad-stroke policy statements, the Obama campaign so far hasn’t given many details about how Obama would do it either.
“We don’t know what ‘Forward’ means. Does ‘Forward’ mean four more years of the same?” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “The problem is, convention speeches aren’t about policies. (Obama) is going to lay out a general plan just like Romney did, and at the end of the day, many people are going to be unsatisfied.”
Indeed, neither Obama nor his surrogates have been very detailed about plans for a second Obama term, even when specifically asked why the president wants another four years to lead the country.
“President Obama on Thursday night will have an honest conversation with the American people — an honest conversation about where we’ve been,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “There’s going to be specifics, but equally important, he’s going to lay out the choice of the two very different visions for the direction that America could go.”
Even in interviews previewing Obama’s speech, his advisers seem preoccupied most with reminding Americans of the state of the country when Obama became president.
“Our challenge is to have a candid conversation about what this president inherited, what we’ve done despite serious Republican obstruction and the vision that the president has for building this economy out through the values of the middle class,” said Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
Gibbs echoed the same message.
“We inherited a huge mess, so the first part of this has been getting out of the hole we’re in,” he said. “What we have to do is rebuild the economy and give people a sense of moving forward, and that’s what I really think the next part of this will be about.”
Gibbs listed a few general areas around which the president would focus his message, stressing the importance of research and innovation, education and energy independence, but he would go no further.
“There will be some stuff in there that’s new,” Gibbs said. “But you might not be surprised that I’m not going to get ahead of the leader of the free world.”
Many outside of the president’s campaign aren’t convinced that details are actually going to be forthcoming.
“The reality is there isn’t a big appetite for big, tall pieces of legislation right now. Talking about small-ball stuff is designed to get specific demographic groups on board with your campaign,” said David Damore, a political scientist at UNLV. “That’s the reality of this being a nuts and bolts game of counting people in particular geographic areas as opposed to laying out broad themes of where the country should go.”
Obama is in the politically tricky position of being a president seeking a second term during a downturn in the economy.
Historically, that’s not a great place for a sitting president to be. Except for Ronald Reagan, no president seeking re-election during a time when the unemployment rate was 7 percent or higher has successfully won a second term.
And Reagan had rampant job growth to recommend him: In 1984, the U.S. economy was growing at a rate of about 3 or 4 percent; today, it’s 0.7 percent.
“They know if this is just a straight referendum on Obama and the recession he’ll probably lose it,” Madonna said.
Thus, Obama’s campaign benefits from making the debate more about Romney and the Republican economic plans he’s embraced, including his running mate Paul Ryan’s controversial budget. Likewise, Romney has calculated he benefits most from making the campaign about Obama.
“What they’re doing is rerunning the Bush 2004 campaign: Get your groups behind you with your niche policies, don’t promise anything will land, and create enough uncertainty about the opponent so that when voters go into the polls, they just think they can’t trust the other person,” Damore said. “Or in Romney’s case, why would we go back to these policies?”
That Romney has promised to roll back many of Obama’s economic policies has only pushed Obama to defend his record instead of laying out a new vision. Thus, his supporters argue, his unfinished ideas are his second-term agenda.
“He’s talked about investing in education and clean energy, innovation, manufacturing,” Obama campaign policy director James Kvaal said. “I think what you’ll hear (tonight) is a roadmap for how he’s going to achieve the objectives he’s laid out.”
“Just because the president proposed it and we haven’t gotten it done doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing,” Gibbs said. “It just means we’ve been dealing with an intransigent Congress for the last two years that didn’t let us move forward on some of the really good ideas we had on rebuilding the economy.”
Both campaigns find themselves in danger if they go any further. Polls are so split and issues are so divisive that if either side starts talking about too many specifics, they run the risk of opening themselves up to further attacks.
Wasserman Schultz criticized Republicans this week for “speak(ing) in such generalities that we know are the result of them thinking that if they get too specific, that actually might be harmful to their future politically.”
And that could be exactly the Democrats’ problem, as well.