Obama's Challenge: Answering The Voters' Question

As Democrats gather in Charlotte, they enjoy what the military calls a target-rich environment. From Ryan's lie to Romney's shameless tax plans to the Republican war on women, gays, minorities, the right to vote, and unions -- there are no shortages of subjects that can rouse widespread ire and energy.

But in fact, there is only one central question in Charlotte, one hurdle that the president must vault if he is to succeed in November -- and have any kind of a mandate for his second term.

Voters want to know what the president will do to put this economy back on track, to make it work for working people again and rebuild the middle class.

Voters like Obama much more than Romney. They don't blame him for the mess that he inherited. They still want him to succeed. They don't like the taste of the reheated trickle-down brew that Romney and Ryan are peddling.

But two-thirds of voters, sensibly enough, think the country is on the wrong track. With mass unemployment, declining wages, growing insecurity and a harrowing loss of household wealth with the fall of housing prices, people believe the broad middle class that made America exceptional is getting crushed.

The essence of Romney's message is: The economy stinks; Obama has failed; I'm a biz guy; I can fix this. Voters find it more difficult than Ann Romney to "trust Mitt," the man from Bain. But with little sense of what Obama would do now, polls show them favoring Romney over Obama on dealing with the economy. So what should we look for in Charlotte?

1. The Future, not the Past

Democrats have been tongue tied about their growth agenda. Public concern about deficits and spending, and the successful Republican attacks on the stimulus, have focused attention on cutting deficits rather than getting our economy going. Ironically, as Europe has shown, austerity inflicted on a weak economy only adds to debt burdens and human misery. Getting people to work is the first and necessary step towards getting our books in order.

The Obama campaign defends its past policies -- rescuing an economy in free fall, the consecutive months of jobs growth, more private sector jobs created in four years than Bush in eight -- but this can suggest that they don't understand how bad things are right now. Obama can and should take credit for rescuing the economy from lurching into a Great Depression, but only as a necessary first step leading to a bold agenda to make this economy work for the middle class once more.

2. Bold and Sustained, not Temporary and Targeted

The reforms needed aren't simply a short-term stimulus to get people working. That assumes that there is a strong economy to revive, but the Bush economy did not work for most Americans even when it was growing. The wealthy few captured most of the rewards of growth; most households lost ground.

The elements of the agenda for reviving the middle class seem clear. First, we should be making the investments vital to empowering Americans -- in education and training, in 21st century competitive infrastructure, in research and innovation. Second, we need to make certain we make things in America once more -- ending the outrageous tax breaks that reward companies for moving jobs abroad, moving to expand but balance our trade, putting China on notice that we will treat their exports as they treat ours. That includes helping to create markets for renewable energy, and insuring that the U.S. retains a leading part in the green industrial revolution that is sweeping the world. Finally, we have to make certain the rewards of growth are widely shared. Raise the minimum wage, limit excessive CEO compensation packages that give them multimillion dollar incentives to cook the books, and empower workers to gain a fair share of the productivity they help create.

We can afford to do this by making smart choices that reflect our values. Those who do well in America should do well by America. We should crack down on the tax dodges and loopholes, the foreign tax havens and secret accounts that have billionaires paying lower taxes than the police who guard their streets, and multinational corporations evading taxes altogether. We should share the burdens of policing the world, bring the troops home from Afghanistan, and invest some of that money in rebuilding America. Wall Street excesses blew up this economy; surely Wall Street should contribute its fair share to cleaning up the mess. And we must focus on soaring health care costs that are the sole driver of our long-term deficit woes. That requires sustaining the first steps made under Obamacare, taking on the drug and insurance companies, limiting costs, not services.

This will get done only by re-electing the president, electing progressive champions to the Congress, and providing them with a mandate to take on the money politics and entrenched corporate interests that now rig the rules in Washington.

3. The Contrast

This agenda is not foreign to Obama -- and it draws a stark contrast with Romney. Obama would lift taxes on the wealthy to invest in areas vital to our future; Romney pledges to cut investments in education and training, in Medicaid and health care, in order to pay for even deeper tax breaks for the rich. Obama would impose a minimum tax on U.S. profits earned abroad, reducing the incentives to ship jobs abroad; Romney would make the world a tax haven, giving companies billion-dollar incentives to ship jobs or report profits abroad. Obama remains committed to U.S. benefiting from leading the green industrial revolution and the transition to renewable energy; Romney is wedded to a drill, baby, drill policy that simply denies reality. Obama would set the rules to insure prosperity is more widely shared; Romney promises only that some of the breaks going to the top may trickle down on you. Obama will protect health care benefits while pushing insurance and drug companies to reduce costs; Romney and Ryan will do nothing about rising costs, but simply limit guaranteed services with a voucher and send those costs to the most vulnerable.

4. The Public is Still Open

Polls are at best snapshots. They test messages in ways far different than how Americans receive information. And part of any successful campaign is to create themes that mold opinion, rather than simply reflect that.

What is apparent is that, even in this most polarized electorate, voters are still looking for an answer, and open to a far more populist argument. Here is an example from a test we did with Lake Research contrasting the Republican message below with a range of Democratic arguments. The full memo is available here. In the following contrast, voters favored the Democratic argument 47 (32 percent strongly) -41 (27 percent strong) even at a time when polls show them favoring Romney over Obama on handling the economy.

Republican Message:

Republicans say Obama has failed. Twenty-three million people are in need of work because he's burdening the economy with wasted spending, big deficits, more regulations, and higher taxes. No wonder business isn't creating jobs. We say it's time for new leadership. We need more freedom, not more regulation. Lower deficits, not more spending. More jobs, not more taxes. We need to roll back the regulations blocking production of oil, coal, gas, and other energy right here in the U.S. Repeal Obamacare, lowers taxes, and free up businesses to create jobs. Cut spending and move to a balanced budget. It's small business, not government that will get America going again.

Democratic Populism and Fairness Message:

Democrats say the middle class is disappearing, while the richest clean up. Republicans want billions more in tax breaks for the wealthy, paid for by cuts in Medicare and education. That's wrong. We need to take on the special interests that are rigging the rules. Raise the minimum wage. Stop rewarding CEOs for cooking the books. Empower workers to bargain for a fair share of the profits they help produce. Invest in areas vital to our economy-innovation, education, rebuilding our decaying infrastructure -- and pay for it by getting millionaires and big corporations to pay their fair share. This economy needs to work for Americans who work hard and play by the rules.

Answer the Question; Demand a Mandate

If Obama does lay out a broad agenda, the fall election will turn then not simply on an abstract debate over the role of government, but a debate about who is on your side -- and who has the best sense of how to move forward. And there, everything in Romney's personal biography, professional history or political platform exposes him for what he is - -the champion of privilege in a time of trouble. If Obama sets out a bold course, he can win a mandate to move forward to fight for the changes this country desperately needs.