Mitt Romney, in a speech last week, accused President Barack Obama of running a “hide-and-seek campaign” in which voters will have to wait until after the election to “find out what he actually will do.” In truth, there is always a November Surprise no matter who wins occupancy rights to the Oval Office. All presidents-elect modify their campaign promises in light of new economic realities, foreign-policy pressures and the discovery that there is an independent branch of government called Congress. Incumbent presidents can also be sneaky about a second term. Lyndon Johnson wins the lifetime-achievement award for deceptive pre-election rhetoric with his pledge in 1964, “We’re not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
Yet even though he is not Mr. Transparency himself, Romney is justified in posing the hide-and-seek question about Obama’s second-term agenda. Among the best places to find clues about Obama’s post-November plans are in the remarks that he delivers to Democratic loyalists at fundraisers. At almost the precise moment Tuesday afternoon when Rick Santorum was conceding the Republican presidential nomination to Mitt Romney, Obama was speaking to 60 high-roller Florida Democrats at a $10,000-a-person fundraising luncheon in Palm Beach Gardens. Framing the fall campaign in hyperbolic terms, Obama declared, “This election will probably have the biggest contrast we’ve seen since the Johnson-Goldwater election--and maybe before that.”
Since Herbert Hoover analogies have mostly been retired to the Old Tropes Home, it is politically understandable why Obama wants to portray Romney as the 21st-century heir to Barry “A Choice Not an Echo” Goldwater. But Goldwater, with his libertarian social views and old-fashioned friendships with Senate Democrats, might be a moderate in today’s Republican Party. And there have been more recent clash-of-ideology campaigns in the past half century. Think of George McGovern versus Richard Nixon in 1972, or unabashed liberal Walter Mondale taking on Ronald Reagan in 1984. (Of course, in those elections, the Democrats carried a cumulative total of two states).
For an incumbent president in April of a reelection year, this fund-raiser rhetoric is the closest analogue to a primary-campaign stump speech. Like a standup comic honing his monologue by playing to small rooms, Obama tries out riffs that, if they are good, might make it all the way to his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte. Even the hastily discarded lines offer a window into Obama’s mind as he tries to inspire the wealthy Democrats who are picking up much of the freight for his campaign.
Obama is having problems with what a frustrated George H.W. Bush once derided as “the vision thing.” Even as the president’s campaign appearances are punctuated by chants of “Four More Years,” Obama has offered only vaporous hints about what he would do with more four more years. The president used the word “vision” 10 times during the three Florida fundraising events that he headlined Tuesday. But only at a luncheon at the home of Hansel Tookes, the former president of Raytheon International, did Obama say flatly, “That’s our vision for America.” What the president was referring to was his portrait of “broad-based prosperity” and “a middle class where everybody who wants to work hard … can make it, regardless of what they look like, where they came from, what their last name is.”
Talking about “broad-based prosperity” has the fat-free content of Romney reciting the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” Who in American political life is against the hard-working middle class? Or would publicly oppose the American Dream of making it regardless of the color of your skin or your family’s ethnicity?
When Obama speaks to Democratic donors, he stresses how far the nation has come since Inauguration Day 2009. This temptation to run through a greatest-hits album is irresistible for incumbent presidents, even if voters look to the future rather than the past. (Winston Churchill was thrown out of office just two months after V-E Day).
At a $500-per-person evening event in Hollywood (yes, we are still in Florida) on Tuesday, Obama set up a refrain that I suspect will be a lasting staple of his campaign rhetoric: “Change is the decisions that we made to help prevent a second Great Depression … Change is health care reform that we passed after a century of trying … Change is the fact that for the first time in our history you don’t have to hide who you love to serve the country you love.”
To be sure, there have been policy hints in Obama’s fundraising speeches. But most of the proposals sounded like leftovers from the State of the Union address. “Let’s rebuild America,” Obama said in Hollywood, boldly invoking 1930s icons like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge, before going on to say, “It’s time for us to take some of the money that we spent on war, use half of it to pay down our debt, use the rest of it for some nation-building at home.”
Here Obama seems to be blithely ignoring Congress, just as Romney frequently does on the campaign trail. Even if Obama is reelected, the Democrats will be hard-pressed to win back the 25 House seats need to return the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi. The Senate, where the Democrats now prevail 53 to 47, could be in jeopardy even if Obama successfully graduates from the Electoral College. As political analyst Charlie Cook writes in National Journal, “Basic arithmetic makes some Democratic losses inevitable. The Democrats have 23 seats at risk. The Republican have just 10.” The likely reality is that Obama, if reelected, would be bedeviled by congressional Republicans through the rest of his time in office.
An aura of unreality hovers over both the president’s and Romney’s rhetoric on the economy. The president dusted off his State of the Union catch phrase as he talked about “an economy built to last.” (The line sounds stolen from a car ad back in the days when Detroit built only clunkers). Neither candidate seems eager to talk about the Perils-of-Pauline precipice moment that is scheduled to hit on New Year’s Eve, when the Bush tax cuts and the temporary payroll tax cut expire at the same time that an automatic $1.2 trillion in budget cuts are supposed to take effect. How that high-stakes congressional drama plays out will shape how much flexibility the next president has in reshaping the economy.
The truth is that--despite Obama’s evasiveness and Romney’s happy talk--the nation faces grim times. That is why the president, in particular, finds it is understandably hard to frame an uplifting message that will arouse Democrats for the fall campaign. Towards the end of almost every fundraising speech, Obama says, “I told you real change--big change--takes time. These problems didn’t build up overnight and they’re not going to be solved overnight. It will take more than a single term, more than a single president.”
Welcome to the era of “Waiting for Godot” politics, when the qualities demanded of the nation are patience and fortitude.