The recently concluded Republican National Convention offered a handful of great speeches -- usually by people not running for office -- and a whole lot of vague pronouncements, platitudes, oversimplifications and misleading characterizations of President Obama and his record. But to my ears, the speakers laid out three potentially powerful arguments for replacing Obama that Democrats will need to rebut if they hope to win in November.
There’s little chance even casual viewers missed any of these points because GOP speakers made them repeatedly, either directly or implicitly.
The first was that Obama isn’t a good leader, he’s just a guy who blames somebody else for his failures.
On one level, that’s nonsense. The president persuaded Congress to enact an astoundingly large economic-stimulus package within weeks of being sworn in, then wrangled more stimulus (in the form of tax cuts) through late in 2010 and 2011. He pushed through a healthcare overhaul that moves the country toward universal insurance coverage, a goal many of his predecessors shared but couldn’t reach. His administration shepherded a financial-regulation bill into law despite the determined opposition of one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States. While you may not like some or all of these measures, they’re all testaments to Obama’s ability to get big things done.
But the reality is that the economy is still in the dumps, and the average person has been hearing over and over for the last two years that Washington is utterly dysfunctional. Some voters will blame Republicans in Congress for the lack of progress on key issues; many Republicans in the House have resisted the compromises suggested by top members of their own party, to say nothing of accepting Obama’s offers. Yet no single elected official is more responsible for the country’s well-being than the president. When the economy booms, he gets the most credit, regardless of whether he deserves it. And when the economic engine stalls, he’s expected to lead the efforts to get it going again, and to do what it takes to get Congress to follow.
The second, related accusation was that Obama doesn’t have a plan for creating jobs and solving Washington’s fiscal mess.
That sort of criticism has been circulating ever since Republicans took control of the House in 2010, but it’s belied by what’s been happening inside the Washington Beltway. Obama has pushed multiple initiatives to boost hiring, such as Startup America to encourage new business formation, tax credits for hiring veterans, SelectUSA to promote foreign investment in the United States, a National Exports Initiative, Skills for America’s Future and a Strategy for American Innovation.
The same could be said about Obama and the burgeoning debt. Although he didn’t embrace the deficit-shrinking proposal crafted by the chairmen of the fiscal commission he appointed, he has offered plans at least four times that would cut the deficit by $4 trillion over the coming decade. That’s not enough to balance the budget, but it would stop the debt from growing faster than the economy -- an important measure of fiscal stability.
What Obama doesn’t have is a plan for the economy that Republicans like. Which brings us to the third criticism: Obama wants to punish success and divide the nation along class lines. As Romney put it in his speech Thursday:
"[T]he centerpiece of the president’s entire reelection campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? In America, we celebrate success. We don’t apologize for success.”
Out on the hustings, Obama usually makes the point that government (and taxpayers) help businesses succeed by making investments in such things as infrastructure and education. That’s where the “you didn’t build that” meme came from. The president is advancing two ideas here: that we can’t afford to stop making those investments, even as we cut spending, and that it’s reasonable to ask the most successful Americans to pay more of the cost.
It’s kind of a rhetorical jiu jitsu to characterize Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on the highest-income Americans to help close the budget gap as an “attack on success,” especially when polls show that most Americans support that idea. But the problem for Obama, as Romney notes, is that he’s put so much emphasis on that tax hike. Seemingly every stump speech includes a lengthy passage explaining why upper-income Americans should pay more. The plan offered by Romney and Ryan, by contrast, promises tax cuts for just about everybody to spur economic growth. Which one is an easier sell in a sluggish economy?
Beyond that, the Democrats’ rhetoric about having wealthy Americans pay their “fair share” really does smack of class warfare. Democrats can argue that those taxpayers are better able to afford the added tax burden, but that’s not the same as showing why they should -- especially when the highest income households already pay a disproportionate share of the taxes relative to their share of the pie.
Lately, Obama has been trying to deflect such criticism by noting how much it would cost to provide the tax cuts that Romney and Ryan propose. As he put it in a speech Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C.:
"[T]hey’ve got an economic plan that can be summed up very simply. They say that if we give a $5-trillion tax cut -- which includes giving an extra $250,000 tax cut to people making $3 million a year or more -- then somehow, prosperity is going to rain down on the rest of us. Now, many of you were too young to remember, but we tried this for about a decade before I came into office. It didn’t work then; it’s not going to work now.”
Democrats will have their turn in the spotlight next week in Charlotte, and chances are good their convention will be just as rife with platitudes, revisionist histories and caricatures of their opponents. It will be interesting to see what their big themes will be in response to the GOP’s arguments about leading, improving the economy and supporting business. Whatever the Democrats’ message, they’ll be relying almost exclusively on current and former elected officials to deliver it. Insert your joke here about the relative popularity of politicians and used-car dealers (or journalists).
Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey