President Obama took a familiar tack when discussing America’s future at the Tuesday night debate played it safe.
No inspiring catchphrases, no new policies with a “wow” factor that might inspire voters watching the town hall event on Long Island, NY. He gave a rote endorsement of renewable energy—a centerpiece of his 2009 stimulus package—while chatting up the potential for fossil fuels. His stated goals seemed remarkably similar to those of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney: lower taxes for the middle class, more factory jobs, and reduced budget deficits.
“I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded,” Obama said at the close of the 90-minute debate, in the nearest thing to a reflective comment. “But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy’s grown. That’s how we built the world’s greatest middle class. And that’s what’s at stake in this election.”
Many of his predecessors projected an enduring vision of what they hoped to achieve, whether it was Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill,” Bill Clinton’s “Bridge to the 21st Century” or George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light.” Obama’s reelection campaign slogan is “Forward,” but the path he laid out at the debate was a laundry list of achievements that he vows to preserve.
On Wednesday, Romney—largely considered to have lost the debate—decided to criticize Obama on this specific issue. “I think it’s interesting that the president still doesn’t have an agenda for a second term,” he said at a Virginia rally. “Don’t you think it’s time for him to finally put together a vision of what he’d do for the next four years if he were elected?”
For days, pundits wondered aloud whether Obama would finally demonstrate what President George H.W. Bush once dubbed “the vision thing,” that sense of purpose that transcends a mere recitation of campaign clichés. They got their answer Tuesday: Obama thinks he’s better off without it.
“The president clearly won the debate,” said Stan Collender, a budget policy expert and partner at Qorvis Communications. “But he also did not describe what a second term would look like. For that matter, Romney didn't explain what his first term would look like. That's both a specific strategy and in keeping with what the electorate seems to want, which is just to know that things will get better.”
The flipside is that strategy required Obama and Romney to make a cynical pitch to a weary electorate: things will get even worse with the other guy. Obama claimed the former Massachusetts governor and private equity investor was offering voters a raw deal. The Republican could not possibly fulfill his pledge to both cut taxes and balance the budget, he said, while sidestepping questions about his own economic stewardship.
“We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics, beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, in terms of how he pays for that,” Obama said. “If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here; I want to spend $7 [trillion] or $8 trillion … but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal. And neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.”
The post-debate polling showed both the strength and weakness of this approach. Likely voters narrowly gave Obama the win, but surveys by CNN and CBS both showed that Romney held commanding leads on addressing both the economy and the deficit – issues that regularly turn up at the top of the list of voter concerns.
All Romney had to do to make his case for further reducing tax rates—a policy that many voters still associate with growth despite some mixed results—was by pointing out how sluggish the recovery has been under Obama for nearly four years.
The $825 billion stimulus package enacted by Congress and signed by Obama in 2009 failed to produce all of the projected jobs, while Obama’s other signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, has yet to be implemented and remains unpopular with the general public. Obama briefly blamed the tax cuts introduced by George W. Bush for the budget deficits topping $1 trillion annually under his own watch, but he never responded when Romney chastised him for breaking a promise to halve the deficit in four years.
“I can get this country on track again,” Romney said. “We don’t have to settle for what we’re going through. We don’t have to settle for gasoline at four bucks. We don’t have to settle for unemployment at a chronically high level. We don’t have to settle for 47 million people on food stamps. We don’t have to settle for 50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work. We don’t have to settle for 23 million people struggling to find a good job.”
Eugene Steuerle, an economist with the Urban Institute, questions whether Obama or anyone in his shoes can offer a compelling new direction to Americans. When any genuine discussion about the looming fiscal and budgetary challenges means asking the public to make extraordinary sacrifices in terms of reduced services or higher taxes, it’s hard to offer an honest vision.
“The next president, whether a second term for Obama or a first term for Romney, must take away more promises to the public than any in our history,” Steuerle said. “My bigger concern is whether either candidate can pull it together … There isn’t any slack or give in the system; it’s trapped in a straightjacket made by past legislation.”
Unless Medicare and Medicaid undergo painful curbs in spending, their growth will swallow much of the federal budget—leaving little room for other services and potentially squeezing national security. And even if Obama succeeds in raising taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year, the debt – now in excess of $16 trillion—will remain a dangerously high percentage of the gross domestic product.
The first major obstacle after the Nov. 6 election will be averting a major recession, but no discussion occurred at the debate about next year’s fiscal cliff—a mix of tax hikes and automatic spending cuts totaling more than $600 billion. Dozens of corporate CEOs—including Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein—attribute the slow economic growth on the inability to find consensus on these big issues.
Both candidates touched on gasoline prices and college affordability, yet neither turned their attention to the housing bust that triggered the 2008 financial crisis. While Obama and Romney both angrily strode around the floor with a clear dislike of the other, they often preferred giving voters inoffensive platitudes about what could be achieved. “The most important thing we can do is to make sure that we are creating jobs in this country,” Obama said. “But not just jobs, good paying jobs--ones that can support a family.”
Instead of offering fresh ideas, both turned to familiar stereotypes about how to grow the economy, as though the act was as simple as amending the tax code or erecting new highways.
“I’m going to reduce the tax burden on middle income families,” Romney said. “And what’s that going to do? It’s going to help those families, and it’s going to create incentives to start growing jobs again in this country.”
The absence of any vision might just be the game plan, since the race seems to be more about driving the base to the polls than uniting the country around a shared future. Obama’s performance during the first Oct. 3 debate in Denver deflated his fellow Democrats, so he raised their spirits this time by coming after Romney hard.
“Obama will never regain the ground he lost by his performance in the first debate, but he did what he needed to win the election,” said Scott Lilly, a former senior House Democratic aide and now a fellow with the Center for American Progress. “He has reassured his base and he has pulled enough undecideds back on to the fence to hold a significant majority of swing states.”