This column appeared in the New York Times 26 May 2012
DURING a recent discussion in Seattle with a group of educators, one of them surprised me when she pointed out that even though their state did not win President Obama’s education “Race to the Top,” that program was critical in spurring education reform in Washington State. As I listened to her analysis, the thought occurred to me: I wonder how Barack Obama would do if he ran for president as himself. ... How he would do if he ran for re-election on all the things he’s accomplished but rarely speaks about.
Barack Obama is a great orator, but he is the worst president I’ve ever seen when it comes to explaining his achievements, putting them in context, connecting with people on a gut level through repetition and thereby defining how the public views an issue.
Think about this: Is there anyone in America today who doesn’t either have a pre-existing medical condition or know someone who does and can’t get health insurance as a result? Yet two years after Obama’s health care bill became law, how many Americans understand that once it is fully implemented no American with a pre-existing condition will ever again be denied coverage?
“Obamacare is socialized medicine,” says the Republican Party. No, no — excuse me — socialized medicine is what we have now! People without insurance can go to an emergency ward or throw themselves on the mercy of a doctor, and the cost of all this uncompensated care is shared by all those who have insurance, raising your rates and mine. That is socialized medicine and that is what Obamacare ends. Yet Obama — the champion of private insurance for all — has allowed himself to be painted as a health care socialist.
Think about this: Obama didn’t just save the auto industry from bankruptcy. Two years later, he also got all the top U.S. automakers to agree to increase mileage for their vehicle fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, from 27.5 m.p.g. today. As Popular Mechanics put it, this “is the largest mandatory fuel economy increase in history.” It will drive innovation, save money and make America less dependent on petro-dictators. Did you know Obama did this?
Finally, how did Obama ever allow this duality to take hold: “The Bush tax cuts” versus the “Obama bailout”? It should have been “the Bush deficit explosion” and the “Obama rescue.” Sure, the deficit has increased under Obama. It was largely to save the country from going into a Depression after a Bush-era binge that included two wars — which, for the first time in our history, we not only did not pay for with tax increases but instead accompanied with tax cuts — plus a 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that we could not afford, then or now. Congressional Democrats also had a hand in this, but the idea that Bush gets to skate off into history as a “tax-cutter” and not as a “deficit buster” is a travesty. You can’t just blame Fox News. Obama has the bully pulpit.
But Obama is running even with Mitt Romney not simply because of what he didn’t say, but also because of what he didn’t do. As the former Obama budget director Peter Orszag notes, to get the economy moving again, what we’ve needed for the past two years is a plan of “combined boldness” — another stimulus focused on infrastructure that would grow jobs and enhance productivity combined with a credible, bipartisan plan for trimming future growth in Medicare and Social Security and reforming taxes to get our long-term fiscal house in order, as the economy improves.
In short, we needed more stimulus paired with some version of the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan. It is highly unlikely that you could “get one passed without the other, and you shouldn’t want to anyway,” said Orszag. Together they would launch the U.S. economy.
Obama, in fairness, tried a version of this with his “grand bargain” talks with the House speaker, John Boehner, but when those talks failed, Obama made a huge mistake. He should have gone straight to the country and repeated over and over: “I have a plan that will create millions of jobs and send the stock market soaring — near-term stimulus plus Simpson-Bowles — and the Republicans are blocking it.”
Obama could have adapted Simpson-Bowles, but symbolically it was vital to embrace it in some form as his headline deficit plan, because it already enjoyed some G.O.P. support and strong backing from independents, who liked the way it forced both parties to compromise. Had Obama gone to the country with more near-term stimulus married to Simpson-Bowles, he would have owned the left, independents and center-right. It would have split the Republicans and provided a real alternative to the radical Paul Ryan-Romney plan.
Instead, Obama retreated to his left base, offered a stimulus without Simpson-Bowles and started talking about “fairness.” The result has been a muddled message that has alienated independent/center-right voters who put him over the top in 2008. Don’t get me wrong: I want fairness, but fairness that comes from a growing economy and comprehensive tax reform not from redividing a shrinking pie.
In sum, Obama’s campaign right now feels as though it were made in a test tube by political consultants. It’s not the Obama we admire. Rather than pounding the country with “I have a plan” — a rebuilding stimulus plus Simpson-Bowles — which would be an Obama-like message of hope, leadership and unity that would put him on higher ground that Romney can’t reach because of the radical G.O.P. base, Obama is selling poll-tested wedge issues. I don’t think it’s a winner for him or America.