Obama’s Campaign Kick-off Gets Mixed Reviews
Policy + Politics

Obama’s Campaign Kick-off Gets Mixed Reviews

REUTERS/Jason Reed

President Obama is crisscrossing the country promoting his reelection campaign message of fairness as he tries to close the growing income gap between the very rich and everyone else. While political and budget experts give the president high marks for his political skills, some are disappointed that he did not offer a more robust jobs agenda or stress the importance of lowering the deficit and other persistent fiscal challenges.

Obama has been selling his State of the Union proposals, including forcing wealthy Americans to pay higher tax rates on their investments, eliminating tax loopholes that encourage companies to send jobs overseas and rewarding businesses that expand their workforce in the U.S. He also promised more support of small businesses with tax cuts and reduced regulatory burden, support for research and development, particularly in energy related areas, and mortgage refinancing for “responsible” homeowners.

“We are as competitive as we’ve ever been,” Obama said yesterday at a manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  “And for a lot of these companies, it’s starting to make a lot of sense to bring jobs back home. We must seize the opportunity.

Obama and his advisers had their work cut out for them in the run-up to Tuesday night’s SOTU address in crafting a speech balancing his presidential responsibility to present his legislative and budget agenda to Congress with the political imperative of rallying Americans to his side.
"I think he did a good job,” said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and former top aide to the House Democratic leader.  “Look, any State of the Union speech in an election year is a political speech. Part of the trick, though – and the advantage of incumbency—is that you get to stand up there on national TV and look like you’re president and be president and present an agenda.”

Steve Bell, senior economic director of  the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Senate Republican aide, was disappointed that Obama didn’t do more to  educate Americans on the need to have both growth and a real deficit-reduction plan enacted before time runs out.  Mark Thoma, economics professor at the University of Oregon, said, “The plan the president outlined is fine as far as it goes, but I wanted a jobs plan that was big and bold.”

From a political standpoint at least, Obama’s strategy appears to be working. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls found that voters are feeling more positively about the economy and of Obama’s stewardship. About 30 percent of those surveyed believe the country is headed in the right direction, up eight percentage points from the previous month. In addition, for the first time in seven months, more people approve of Obama’s job performance than disapprove – 48 percent to 46 percent.

Now that they’ve had a couple of days to absorb what Obama has said, what do the experts think about the president’s proposals?  And how well or badly will they play with voters? Here what eight Fiscal Times experts advised the president to do (Before), and how they assessed the speech (After):

Mark Thoma, University of Oregon economics professor and Fiscal Times columnist
Before: To improve his  reelection chances, Obama must convince the electorate that he is on their side, not the side of the wealthy – the financial sector in particular. His recent pivot away from deficit reduction and toward job creation is helpful, but he will need to do much more.  

After: Right now, there are millions of people unemployed. That’s a poor state of the union — we have an employment crisis — and putting people back to work ought to be treated as a national emergency. The plan the president outlined is fine as far as it goes, but I wanted a jobs plan that was big and bold. I wanted a plan that puts immediate job creation at the forefront. However, this plan is largely tax cuts, it’s piecemeal, and it’s mostly directed at our long-run problems. Bringing business home doesn’t happen overnight, R&D takes time, and so does infrastructure, and so on. Millions of people need jobs now, not later. They don’t have time to wait, for example, for manufacturing to move from China back to the US, and there’s no certainty that will happen in any case. What was missing from the speech is a strong, coherent plan to create jobs immediately. Don’t get me wrong, we need to address our long-run problems. But we also need to get people back to work as soon as possible.

Finally, in my list of recommendations, I also mentioned the need to hammer Republicans over obstructionism, and on this topic, the president said “I intend to fight obstruction with action.” I’m not exactly sure how that works, but at least he mentioned the issue.

Steve Bell, senior economic director, Bipartisan Policy Center
Before: Educate Americans on the need to have both growth and a real deficit-reduction plan enacted before time runs out. Take the “big step” and discuss not just entitlements, but Social Security and Medicare specifically.
After:  I was very disappointed in lack of emphasis on debt. Growth is a short term imperative; but debt reduction needs to start now. We can do both. This is his second big failure --not endorsing his own fiscal commission's deficit reduction plan and now not making debt one of the two challenges along with growth.  Nice words but no plan.

Steve Elmendorf, lobbyist and former top aide to the House Democratic leader
Before: Obama needs to give a very political campaign speech but dress it up so it looks like a governing speech.

After: I think he did a good job. Look, any State of the Union speech in an election year is a political speech. Part of the trick, though – and the advantage of incumbency—is that you get to stand up there on national TV and look like you’re president and be president and present an agenda. And he presented an agenda – the vast majority of which can’t get done because of the Republican House, but he has to look like he is pushing hard and he is going to do his damndest to do it. And the White House is  going to send up legislation on some of it, and they’re going to push for it. It’s not going to be like, “We have a theory.”  It’s going to be, “Here’s a bill.” Democrats will introduce and push for it, and let the Republicans be the ones to stand in the way and say, “No, we don’t want to do that.” So, all and all, I think the president did a pretty good job.

G. William Hoagland, former adviser to the Senate Republican Majority Leader
Before:  Stay away from the campaign rhetoric as much as possible.  The president should indicate there would be time for that once the other party has selected its presidential candidate in August.
After: The best part of speech was the beginning and the end, when Obama recalled the SEAL Team mission that took out Osama bin Laden and linked that to selfless government service and duty to country.  In between, the president  pretty much did what I expected – he took some credit for signs of economic improvement, focused  on payroll-tax cut and jobs potential from infrastructure bills, and took credit for bringing troops home from Iraq. Most disappointing to me was that most of his proposals emphasized  more government,  not less.  I question his stats on less government regulations (I assume he is not counting interim final and guidance directives as regulations) and of course his clear failure  to address the real threat to country's future -- debt growth. Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana’s Republican response to the president was more balanced and more honest on the subject of national  debt.

David M. Walker, CEO of the  Comeback America Initiative and former U.S. Comptroller General
Before:  Outline the major actions that avoided a Depression and turned the economy around.  Note the more encouraging recent economic indicators, including reductions in unemployment and improvement in the housing market.

After: While the speech was well delivered, and included a number of important proposals, it was misleading and came up short on substance and realism in certain important areas.

The President said that "the state of the Union is getting stronger...,"  and "the state of our Union will always be strong."  The truth is, the state of the union is NOT strong and the American people know it. Our elected leaders have not been frank with the American people and they have failed to make the tough choices necessary to address the serious fiscal and other key sustainability challenges that face our great nation. Make no mistake, both parties are to blame for this abdication of leadership and both must change their ways or be held accountable by voters.

In particular, the President did not admit that America's financial condition was poor and deteriorating, and he failed to provide a clear path forward to restore fiscal sanity. While it is true that President Obama inherited a poor economy and employment climate, he has been in office for three years now.

David Francis, Fiscal Times defense and foreign policy correspondent
Before:  Any grand legislative plan should be shelved; there's no chance it will pass the Republican controlled House.  Instead, Obama should focus on recent positive economic news and signs that point to a strong recovery in 2012, while acknowledging that there is more to do on the job front. He should also  take credit for all of the foreign policy successes he's had, including the death of Osama bin Laden and the end of the Iraq War.

After: Obama kept things general in terms of the economy, calling for a series of changes without including them in a broader legislative agenda. Things are looking up on the economic front and the president's rhetoric seemed to reflect this.  Also, as I suspected, he highlighted his two main foreign policy successes: the killing of Osama bin Laden and the end of the Iraq war. 

While he didn't take the gloves off entirely, he did take an unexpected but overdue shot at China for its currency devaluation practices. He also called out wealthy Americans by suggesting they play a bigger part in the economic recovery. It wasn't outright class warfare, as Republicans suggested, but a reflection of our times. Lines in the Republican response suggesting Obama was attempting to divide the country's rich and poor seemed sorely out of touch with the American public. Overall, I think Obama did an above average job.
Larry J. Sabato,  professor of politics, University of Virginia
Before:  Obama should deliver three key  messages: That the state of the union is finally improving, that he will  fight for the middle class, and that he has proved his mettle as commander in chief.

After: My three yardsticks were all much in evidence in President Obama's speech. The third (foreign policy successes) took center stage to a greater degree than I had imagined, and that was the most effective part because it is real. It's an election year so this inevitably was a campaign speech.

Obama was given a gift with the controversy over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's under-15 percent tax rate. Did anyone miss the message of the president's call for a minimum 30 percent rate for millionaires? Overall, it was a classic SOTU, full of poll-tested mini-ideas and cotton-candy rhetoric (tastes good, not filling). What was missing, obviously, was a vision of where Obama really wants to take the country and how we're going to deal with intractable problems like the national debt and corrosive partisanship, which was very visible in the House chamber.

Brad Bannon, Democratic activist and founder of Bannon Communications Research  
Before:  Because House Republicans care more about breaking the president than they do about fixing the economy. Obama should  tell Americans exactly what he thinks the country needs without worrying about GOP reaction. The more expansive the president's agenda is, the more stubborn the GOP will look.  He should keep the heat on the do-nothing congressional Republicans.

After: President Obama threw the gauntlet down before congressional Republicans, which is just what he needed to do.  The president drew a bright line between his concern with working Americans and the GOP's obsession with the health, wealth and welfare of bankers and billionaires. The president's call for millionaires to pay an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent contrasts well with GOP calls to reduce taxes for rich people. A hat tip goes out to Mitt Romney from the White House for releasing his tax returns just before the speech and reporting that his effective tax rate was only 13.7 %.  A new CBS/NYT survey indicates that a clear majority of Americans feel that upper income people pay less than their fair share of taxes.  My only disappointment with the speech was the president's failure to criticize do-nothing congressional Republicans by name.