The choice election that President Obama talks about is now moving, by his own rhetoric, closer to a referendum on his record in office.
That’s but one unmistakable consequence of Obama’s repeated call for voters this November to “break the stalemate” in Washington by giving him another term in office.
In his 54-minute speech in Cleveland, Obama once again called the election a choice. But he also said breaking the political and policy stalemate in Washington is all the election is about. Everything else, Obama said, is “just noise, just a distraction.”
“What’s holding us back is a stalemate in Washington,” Obama said. “This election is your chance to break that stalemate.”
It is hard to imagine how voters could decide how or if they want to “break the stalemate” without taking a long, hard look at Obama’s record. That elevates his stewardship of the economy, which Obama agreed is the dominant issue in this race, above Romney’s merit or lack of merit -- the terrain on which Obama’s campaign and its allies have been fighting most aggressively.
The “choice” frame has driven repeated Obama campaign criticisms of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s role as director of the private equity firm Bain Capital (where, in some cases, workers lost jobs, benefits and pensions) and his stewardship of the Massachusetts economy as a one-term governor. These attempts to disqualify Romney as an ill-suited job-creator, Romney’s self-defined qualification for the presidency, were consistent with the “choice” meme team Obama once preferred.
Now the president’s campaign is marching more directly into the referendum field of fire and some Democrats, while enthused by Obama’s evident energy and intensity on criticizing GOP policies, nevertheless are uneasy about a move closer to the referendum side of the message divide.
“I didn’t like that line,” said an aide to a member of the House Democratic leadership who requested anonymity to describe misgivings among Hill Democrats. “It is asking voters to treat the election as a referendum and that becomes a slippery slope that
David Axelrod, senior adviser to Obama’s re-election campaign, told National Journal that the choice theme remains relevant and that “stalemate” refers to Republicans in Congress holding firm to Romney-like policies.
“What we have are two very distinctive visions about how we grow the economy, and restore economic opportunity and security to the middle class,” Axelrod said. “Governor Romney believes we should simply go back to the policies of the last decade—budget-busting tax breaks for the wealthy; free rein for Wall Street. The president believes we have to move forward in a balanced way, reducing our debt by cutting waste and asking a little more from the wealthiest Americans. That's a choice between two paths the voters will decide.”
Of course, no presidential election is explicitly a “choice” election or a “referendum” election. As many have noted voters weigh both in complex and sometimes indecipherable ways. Even so, presidents Reagan and Clinton ran for reelection emphasizing their economic records and accomplishments over the choice. Their records fed the choice narrative. To a lesser extent, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson did the same thing, although both cast their challengers (Sens. George McGovern, D-S.D., and Barry Goldwater R-Ariz., respectively) as extremists and therefore dangerous choices.
Obama aides don’t deny that today’s speech moves the president closer to the referendum side of debate. But they said the policy differences Obama highlighted between his plan and Romney’s keep the choice frame in focus. While that may be true, Obama said nothing about Romney and Bain or his record in Massachusetts. This, of course, is where his campaign and supportive super PACs have pounded Romney in an attempt to disqualify him as an acceptable alternative.
The “stalemate” theme also appears tied to Obama’s desire to run against Washington, specifically Republican Washington. Speaking on background, several Democrats wondered if, at this stage of his presidency, Obama could effectively position himself outside Beltway gridlock.
Other Democrats also feared Obama’s push to ask voters to essentially break the tie in Washington implies those voters got it wrong by creating the stalemate in Washington via the GOP rout in the 2010 mid-term elections.
“Obama and the Chicago campaign have to see ‘break the stalemate’ as continuation of ‘The Brand,’ and anti-Washington,’” said a Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “They are obsessed with it, and it is foolish. They don't understand they ARE Washington and they need to make it work. “
Said the House Democratic leadership aide: “Since the president is one leg of that stalemate, it gets self-defeating pretty darn quick.”
Axelrod acknowledged that Obama and Democrats lost ground in 2010 (Obama referred to it as a shellacking), but said the “stalemate” issue is designed to feed off voter irritation with GOP obstruction.
“It may be that some independent voters shifted to the Republicans in 2010 hoping for more cooperation,” Axelrod said. “What they got was the most dogmatic, partisan group of Republicans in Congress we have seen in our lifetime. I think there is a great deal of buyer's remorse over that. People want to see cooperation, not mindless obstructionism.”
Republicans won independent voters by 18 points in 2010 and Romney has been gaining in national and swing-state polls with independents since securing the GOP nomination. Axelrod’s sense of “buyer’s remorse” reflects the third important and not-so-subtle shift in Obama re-election messaging.
Campaign focus group and polling data indicate independents are restive about GOP obstructionism and don’t necessarily blame all of it on Obama. After attacking Romney directly for weeks, Obama is now trying to get at Romney’s popularity through Republicans in Congress. Considering the approval rating for Congress is still at historic lows, Obama is now also warming to a referendum on the Hill as he warms to one about his first term.