President Obama takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention this week facing one of the toughest tasks in politics: staying positive while driving home a negative. In other words, Obama must present a compelling vision of the future while simultaneously undercutting rival Mitt Romney’s claim that the president is a good guy who is just in over his head.
As the incumbent, Obama faces a more complicated job in Charlotte than Romney did in Tampa. The president must remind voters of his first-term accomplishments and sell them on his path forward, along with painting Romney as exactly the wrong choice for the country.
“People say the president has to choose between going negative on Romney or providing a forward-looking agenda. That’s a false choice, because you need to do both,” said Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist who has worked on several presidential campaigns. “The way to do both is to talk about how America would look in four years if Romney and [Paul] Ryan are in charge of the country’s fiscal policies compared to whether Barack Obama and Joe Biden are allowed to finish the job.”
It’s the art of the “implied negative,” and Obama’s getting a huge assist from one of the masters of the form, ex-President Clinton. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., called Clinton “the great insinuator,” and on Wednesday, he has the chance to help voters envision a world under Romney by touting the work of Obama.
For instance, Clinton could highlight how Obama’s policies saved the American auto industry and helped underwater homeowners pay their mortgages, while a President Romney’s belief that government shouldn’t intervene in markets would have left people jobless and out of their homes, said Phil Singer, a former spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The two-step can be particularly effective with independent voters, who are more easily turned off by broadside partisan attacks.
It’s the same reason that Romney cushioned his criticisms of Obama in the wrapping, however disingenuous, of regret. “The president hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to. The president has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction,” Romney said in Tampa.
Obama’s challenge is to reverse the GOP’s narrative of a failed presidency. Connolly said it’s as easy as reminding voters that President Clinton led the country into a boom that was undone by eight years of President George W. Bush.
“Let me get this straight: [The Republican] argument is, ‘[Democrats] are not cleaning up our mess fast enough?’ ” Connolly said. “[Obama] and Clinton are going to bring this one home, reminding the public of that outrageous claim.”
The U.S. auto industry is making money, the banking industry has stabilized, the stock market has rebounded, and the country is in better shape than it was four years ago, Connolly said, and Obama has to remind voters of that.
Democrats are criticizing Romney’s lack of specific solutions and trying to counter the Republican nominee’s carefully calculated image of a corporate turnaround artist and job creator by painting him as the kind of play-by-his-own-rules chief executive who helped take the economy off the rails.
“I don’t think it is incumbent upon the president to make that distinction,” said Democratic strategist David Di Martino. “There will be a very different tone out of Charlotte than there was in Tampa.”
And that’s perhaps by necessity as much as by design.
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