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March 08, 2012 5:17 PM Presidential Self-Promotion and the “Referendum” Trap

By Ed Kilgore

The public discussion over the cover package in the April/May issue of the Washington Monthly, “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama,” is getting underway. At WaPo’s Plumb Line, Greg Sargent quotes Paul Glastris’ argument for a more robust presidential effort to promote his own achievements, and then observes:

I’m going to reiterate that Obama’s ability to speak up for his own record, as Glastris puts it, rests almost entirely on whether he can successfully remind the American people of just how awful a situation he inherited. Obama has now begun to do this, as the campaign video he released today demonstrates.
Obama’s overall record simply can’t be judged properly without a clear appreciation of the fact that he inherited the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. If the American people aren’t prepared to factor this into their decision this fall — and this is particularly true if the recovery doesn’t continue accelerating — then Obama very well not get reelected. Obama is one of the best public communicators of our generation, but getting the American people to take the long view of his presidency amid continued economic suffering is going to be a formidable political challenge. His entire legacy may rest on whether he can pull it off.

I agree with both Paul and Greg, but with two qualifications.

First, while the President must of course explain and defend his record, too much dwelling on past accomplishments as opposed to future plans can reinforce the Republican strategy of making the 2012 elections a referendum not only on the president’s record, but on general perceptions of life during the last four years. Indeed, given the emptiness (on some subjects) and radicalism (on others) of the GOP agenda, you can be sure Mitt Romney will lift heaven and earth to keep the focus on the incumbent. If the president runs an entirely positive (as opposed to comparative) campaign, he could help the opposition turn the election into a de facto referendum and lose the opportunity to quite legitimately demand a choice between the two candidates’ visions and agendas for the future.

Second, while reminding Americans of the conditions he inherited from his Republican predecessor is always in order (and necessary, in fact, to any comparative effort to ask whether a return to Bush’s policies or a more conservative version of them is what voters really want), too much talk about that will sound defensive, backward looking, and when it comes to the details of the financial crisis, confusing.

It will require an unusually deft touch for Obama to simultaneously defend himself from attacks, explain his accomplishments (and their context), offer a forward-looking agenda, and also keep the focus on GOP radicalism. But that’s what he needs to do unless he just wants to hope that improving conditions in the country and Republican mistakes grant him re-election by default.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Anonymous on March 08, 2012 5:29 PM:

    But thatís what he needs to do [plan A] unless he just wants to hope that improving conditions in the country and Republican mistakes grant him re-election by default.[plan B]

    So far plan B be seems to be still-birthing any republican hopes for the WH.

  • Ron Byers on March 08, 2012 5:31 PM:

    It will require an unusually deft touch for Obama to simultaneously defend himself from attacks, explain his accomplishments (and their context), offer a forward-looking agenda, and also keep the focus on GOP radicalism.

    Of all the politicians I have ever encountered, the President is about the only one who can be counted on to pull off such a stunt. His problems emerge when he is worrying about other things. When he is focused he is a terrific communicator.

  • Robert on March 08, 2012 5:38 PM:

    That is a pretty good call there Ed. I don't think anyone has given President Obama any credit for being a smart and astute student. When he was sworn in, it was looking like he was facing a mushroom cloud of radio active policies, and a blasted economy. A less than brave person would have pulled a Palin and quit right then and there. Annnnnnnnd, while he was trying to get his feet under him, he was bushwacked by his own blue dog dems. I think he then went to the rope'a dope to let the the clowns wear themselves out. Now, it looks like the circus is starting to wear thin, and their policies even thinner.....The Barry Machine will now start doing the "flit like a butterfly....sting like a bee". Maybe he will give me a call.....so we can go have a beer. Mohammed Ali is now and always will be my hero. Maybe he is the POTUS's as well.

  • Sam Simple on March 08, 2012 5:47 PM:

    If Obama thinks he is gonna win re-election by being positive, I got news for him. Willard Romney is going to run the most negative, scorced earth campaign in American history! What else has he got, for Chrissakes? Or make that for Joseph Smith's sake! Do you think Willard is going to tell the truth and say, "Elect me because I am a robotic Mormon plutocrat who is going to gut Social Security and Medicare, get us into at least two new wars, ban gay marriage forever and possibly outlaw homosexuality, while also cutting taxes AGAIN for all my rich friends"???

  • cwolf on March 08, 2012 6:01 PM:

    @ Sam Simple on March 08, 2012 5:47 PM:

    Do you think Willard is going to tell the truth and say, "Elect me because I am a robotic Mormon plutocrat who is going to gut Social Security and Medicare, get us into at least two new wars, ban gay marriage forever and possibly outlaw homosexuality, while also cutting taxes AGAIN for all my rich friends"???

    Yea, he's really out there.

  • bdop4 on March 08, 2012 6:02 PM:

    "It will require an unusually deft touch for Obama to simultaneously defend himself from attacks, explain his accomplishments (and their context), offer a forward-looking agenda, and also keep the focus on GOP radicalism."

    The narrative has to encompass eight years and focus on four things: (1) How bad the initial situation was; (2) the destructive consequences of GOP obstructionism; (3) the utter failure of the republicans to articulate any economic solution; and (4) his ultimate strategy towards recovery.

    Whenever a rightwinger starts moaning about how Obama's policies have been a disaster, I demand them to articulate how they would have eliminated the 750,000/mo. job losses that he inherited. I note that the GOP's solution at the time was limited to spending and tax cuts and challenge them to explain how that would have created jobs. I've never received a coherent response to that.

    As long they can get away with just criticizing current policy, we will always be on the defensive. They have to be forced to articulate their "solutions" in real terms.

  • Danp on March 08, 2012 6:03 PM:

    Obama needs to more than run for President. He also has to make the case that he needs congressmen who share his values, and not those of Boehner, McConnell and the Koch Brothers. They've had way too much power for the last 12 years.

  • jjm on March 08, 2012 6:20 PM:

    There goes FriscoSF doing his or her usual thing, bashing Obama by claiming he did not do enough when he had majorities.

    As everyone who was watching things play out you should remember that his 'huge majorities' included Blue Dogs who voted with the GOP.

    You should also remember that despite the obstruction of the GOP and the unwillingness of the Blue Dogs, he passed more and more progressive legislation in those first two years than any other president has, even in eight. And yes, I am including LBJ.

    I posted the list about a year ago here, courtesy of an outstanding article by Ezra Klein.

    People even on this website thanked me profusely, saying, "Wow! I thought he hadn't done anything, but I can see Ezra's right."

    He gets so little credit for major accomplishments. All the GOP had to do was pretend to throw mud on them--"failed stimulus" blah blah blah and 'progressives' folded like cheap suits, falling all over each other to agree with the GOP assessment.

    And FriscoSF is pinning bombing Iran on the guy? And we are supposed to think his or her opinion counts?

  • James at home on March 08, 2012 6:21 PM:

    FriscoSF,

    What in the hell are you talking about???!!

    He made very specific proposals for the economy, notice that it is improving despite everything the republicans have done to prevent it. Also he saved the US Auto industry from complete collapse.

    He made very specific proposals for health care, notice that Obamacare is now the laow of the land.

    Notice that he was instrumental in spearheading new reforms for Wall Street.

    He has done more in 3 yrs against constant and unrelenting opposition than many presidents, such as GWB did in eight years.

    Thank God for President Obama. He has my vote without a doubt.

  • djb on March 09, 2012 1:36 PM:

    There is a way to look forward and emphasize the historical record at the same time. The point is to very explicitly present the case that Mitt Romney's economic agenda is nothing but George W. Bush's agenda warmed over. Lowering taxes on the wealthiest even more ... neither monitoring nor regulating the businesses that, if they play by no rules at all, can and eventually will damage the lives of millions of innocent bystanders ... removing the modest assured benefits of social security and medicare as a leg of the retirement stool, to force all into the "casino" ... resisting infrastructure improvements. Romney = Bush. Bush took a robust US economy and drove it into the ground. The longer the Republicans controlled the White House the worse things got, with the Bush/Romney agenda culminating in a near economic collapse. Obama has succeeded in bringing back the economy's forward momentum, against a furious Republican obstruction determined to keep the country in crisis to facilitate its return to power. So the choice is this: do we keep moving forward with Obama, or do we go back to the Bush misery with Romney?

  • JW on March 09, 2012 1:48 PM:

    Obama should refuse to pull punches in his campaign rhetoric. Clueless people need to have the facts spelled out to them in plain language.

    The republican party leadership is not interested in governance. It is strictly concerned with the implementation of its own dictates, and can fairly be characterized as the Party of Rule or Ruin. That fact has profoundly subverted the workaday democratic processes fashioned by earlier generations of congress. The current generation of republican leadership haven't merely tweaked legislative process, or adjusted the rules of process to changing times. They have actively sought to uproot and destroy them.

    Obama should lay it on the line. It will be tough for an administration (and party) still controlled by the erstwhile moderates of the republican party to cut ties with their old friends and allies. But those old friends have grown mad with delusions of unchallenged power. Any pretense that the GOP remains an "honorable opposition" is too ludicrous to maintain. It's long past time they were challenged in no uncertain terms. The stakes are too vast for the president to remain silent without furthering the sinister aims of the republican party.