Through the campaign’s early stages, it has often seemed as if President Obama and his advisers are methodically working through a checklist. For each group central to his electoral coalition, the president has either instigated or escalated conflicts with the GOP on symbolically powerful wedge issues.
With an eye on young voters, Obama has confronted congressional Republicans over maintaining reduced rates for student loans. Targeting women, he has pushed access to no-cost contraception in health insurance and legislation to combat domestic violence. For Hispanics, he has touted the Dream Act and pledged a more emphatic push for comprehensive immigration reform. Gays and other social liberals cheered his embrace of same-sex marriage. Check, check, check.
This strategy recalls President Clinton’s flotilla of micro-initiatives in 1996 but differs in that Clinton promoted consensus ideas (such as school uniforms) while Obama is highlighting issues that sharpen differences with Republicans. The fissures that Obama has created help explain why most polls show him equaling (or exceeding) his 2008 levels of support among the key groups he has targeted, such as Hispanics and upscale white women. And yet all of this maneuvering has left a potentially critical hole at the center of Obama’s reelection blueprint.
While reveling in these fights, the president has not done nearly as much to explain what he would do in a second term, particularly to accelerate the still-sluggish economic recovery. Unless he fills in that picture more effectively, these wedge issues might not hold his key supporters, much less prevent further erosion among the groups, such as blue-collar and older whites, who resisted him even in 2008. Put simply, Obama may not win another term unless he provides Americans a better idea of what he would do with it.
He has set some priorities. Last September, he issued a series of near-term job-creation proposals headlined by a public-private bank to increase investment in infrastructure; grants to states to prevent layoffs of teachers and other public employees; and a payroll-tax cut. In his State of the Union address, Obama added a grab bag of tax breaks for companies that manufacture in the U.S.; a new community-college-based job-training initiative; the “Buffet Rule” to set a minimum 30 percent tax for millionaires; and a plan to ease home refinancing. He consistently calls for raising income taxes on the rich.
Many of these ideas might be worthwhile. But even in combination, it’s difficult to imagine them seizing the imagination or soothing the anxieties of economically strained voters. “There’s no big economic theme,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum. “He is unwilling to lay out an agenda … and, as a result, he’s constantly picking these micro-fights aimed at chosen constituencies.”
Obama has engaged GOP rival Mitt Romney over the economy, but primarily at the level of philosophy and biography. Usually Republican presidential candidates stress broad ideological arguments about Washington’s economic role while Democrats tout individual programs. So far, Romney and Obama have reversed roles. Even without clarifying every detail, Romney has identified an ambitious list of programmatic goals, particularly cutting taxes, imposing a constitutional limit on federal spending, and converting Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system. While aides promise more specifics, Obama to date has broadly defended the need for government intervention in the economy and portrayed Romney’s approach as both a return to President Bush’s policies that preceded the 2008 crash and a boon to the rich.
Obama’s holy grail is to tie Romney’s campaign agenda to his record at Bain Capital—to argue that Romney’s public platform mirrors a private career that enriched the few at the expense of the many. Obama tellingly encapsulated that argument this week when asked about Romney’s business record: “This is not a distraction,” Obama said. “This is what this campaign’s going to be about … what is a strategy for us to move this country forward, in a way where everybody can succeed?”
Despite dissonant dissents from some centrist Democrats, Obama’s team can’t abandon that argument, because it anchors the campaign’s effort to frame the election as a choice, not solely a referendum on the president’s performance. Nor, for all the static, has Romney demonstrated a better response to the charges than he managed in 1994, when Edward Kennedy rode similar arguments to victory in their Senate race in Massachusetts.
The economy’s trajectory will probably shape the November result more than all of these skirmishes will. Yet the central challenge for every president seeking reelection is to convince Americans that he will improve their lives in a second term. And, today, frets one senior Democrat close to the White House, “voters don’t have a sense of what Obama would do to make the economy stronger.” The wedge issues, and the doubts Obama is raising about Romney, are helping the president retain some voters who might be tempted to abandon him. But Obama would be playing with fire to wager that he can hold enough of those voters without providing them a more compelling—and specific—plan to improve their lives than he has offered so far.
This article appears in the May 26, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.