Obama camp struggles with The Question

New York TimesSeptember 3, 2012 

— A day after fumbling a predictable and straightforward question posed by Mitt Romney last week – Are Americans better off than they were four years ago? – the Obama campaign provided a response Monday that it said would be hammered home during the Democratic convention here this week: “Absolutely.”

The focus on the campaign’s handling of the question, after halting and contradictory responses from Democrats on Sunday, complicated the White House’s effort to begin striking a set of themes the president intends to highlight in Charlotte and carry through the general election.

That effort starts with an argument that Romney, the Republican nominee, would raise taxes on the middle class while cutting them for the wealthy. It seeks to pitch forward to the next four years the case that President Barack Obama and his allies have made over the spring and summer that Romney’s business career showed him intent on profit even at the expense of workers and that his wealth has given him tax advantages not enjoyed by regular people.

“The problem is everybody’s already seen his economic playbook,” Obama said at a campaign stop in Ohio before a Labor Day audience largely consisting of United Auto Workers union members. “On first down he hikes taxes by nearly $2,000 on the average family with kids in order to pay for a massive tax cut for multimillionaires.”

The Obama campaign began running a new commercial making the same point, and asserting, “The middle class is carrying a heavy load in America, but Romney doesn’t see it.”

As delegates streamed in for the opening of the convention Tuesday, Obama and his team were putting the finishing touches on a program that requires a different kind of political daring from the kind they exhibited four years ago, when Obama gave his speech in a stadium on a stage compared by some to a Greek temple.

This week Obama is planning to undertake a tricky two-step of convincing wavering supporters being aggressively courted by Romney that they made the right decision in choosing him four years ago and that he has the country on its way to a sustainable recovery even if they do not always feel it. He will make the argument in an outdoor stadium again, Thursday night under the threat of rain, but aides say there will be no Greek columns.

Obama campaign aides indicated they were moving into a new phase, applying their case that Romney has no history of looking out for the middle class to the question of what the next four years would look like under a Romney presidency.

Four days to ‘absolutely’

Obama’s aides initially appeared to stumble when television interviewers asked them to respond to Romney’s charge in his nomination acceptance speech Thursday night that Americans were not better off under Obama.

On Fox News Channel, Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod, said, “We’re in a better position than we were four years ago in our economy.” But Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat, answered “no” on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” although he blamed Republicans.

Other aides equivocated.

On Monday the campaign settled on a definitive answer of, as deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter put it, “Absolutely.”

Followed down a hallway by a local news crew asking the “better off” question in the convention center in Charlotte, Cutter described the economic scene four years ago – the auto companies teetering near bankruptcy, bank failures – and said, “Does anyone want to go back to 2008? I don’t think so.”

Speaking in Detroit on Monday, Vice President Joe Biden said during a union rally, “You want to know whether we’re better off?” He answered: “I’ve got a little bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”

Aides said that over the next three days they would show video testimonials of people who have been helped by Obama’s policies, hammering home the success of his auto bailout and the benefits of his health care overhaul.

“We’re not running from our record, which we’re proud of,” Axelrod said in an interview.

But, he added, “We’re also going to burnish the choice – it’s fair to say there will be more discussion of their ideas at our convention than there was at theirs.”

Medicare messages

While Democrats pointed to polls showing that Romney appeared to get little polling “bounce” out of his convention, some Democratic strategists In Charlotte conceded that Republicans had succeeded in muddying the waters for the president on a traditional Democratic strong point, Medicare.

Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan support a plan that would change the program into one in which beneficiaries would get a fixed amount of money from the government each year to use to purchase private health insurance or traditional Medicare, a shift that Democrats say would leave the elderly vulnerable to rising health care costs. Many Democrats had assumed the issue would be a major political help to them in the presidential race, but some Democratic strategists said Republican claims that Obama had cut $716 billion from the program had at least partly neutralized the Democratic advantage and constrained their ability to emphasize Medicare in their campaign messaging.

In a brief interview, the minority leader in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, seemed to acknowledge as much when she said of Republicans, “Confusion is the name of their game,” although she added that the Democrats could regain the advantage.

“We don’t agonize over that,” Pelosi said, “so we’re organized to make sure the truth is known by the public.”

Democrats expressed relief that Obama took some potentially contentious issues out of the intraparty debate in Charlotte – supporting gay marriage, ending the military policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” and easing immigration rules for college students in the country illegally – and those were expected to be highlighted here, as well.

The show on Thursday

Produced by the same team that put on Obama’s last convention – strategists Jim Margolis and Erik Smith – the program will have some similarities to that of four years ago, with a video version of Obama’s logo, now overlaid with silhouettes of people, looming over the empty Time Warner Cable Arena on Monday. The theme emblazoned on the hall is “Americans Coming Together.”

In a nod to austerity, there will be no band but, rather, a DJ – more specifically, Deejay Cassidy, a favorite of the Obamas.

Where the main prerogative for Obama’s team four years ago was to prove he could be president – and the alleged “Greek” structure actually transformed into a federal looking building facade by the time he took the stage – this year it is to show that he is connected to the middle class.

So, organizers said, the stages in the arena and Bank of America stadium, where Obama speaks Thursday night, will be smaller and “intimate,” allowing speakers “to be surrounded by delegates,” Theo LeCompte, the chief operations officer of the convention, said in a statement.

But this convention will be less about stagecraft than it will be the substantive argument Obama will make to woo back straying supporters and recast his presidency in a light of accomplishment in the face of often gloomy, monthly job report. The next report is to come out Friday, less than 10 hours after Obama finishes speaking.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service