Political Animal


October 16, 2012 3:44 PM Needed: A Big Theory of Managing National Challenges

By Ed Kilgore

Now that not much of anybody is maintaining that “debates don’t matter,” and with Mitt Romney having pulled slightly ahead in the RCP poll average, there’s lots of advice being offered to Barack Obama for tonight’s town-hall meeting. Not that he or his people are reading blogs right now, but I do think a lot of the talk about the president’s need for a clear second-term “plan” or “agenda” may be a bit excessive. He doesn’t, in my opinion, really have to compete with Romney’s various plans or agendas, since we’ve had the benefit of watching him govern for four years. But what he does need, very badly, is a direct statement of where he thinks the country is right now, and how the choice voters make on November 6 will shape the direction of the country.

This need not, and should not, be any complex theory. It could be as simple as this:

Americans know from their own lives that we are in the middle of some historic challenges, as tough as anything we’ve faced in our history: rapidly changing technology; globalization; economic interdependence; threats to our prosperity and our security that emerge with great speed; and a historic meltdown in our financial system. We’re also undergoing large and irreversible changes in how our families are structured, how we earn life’s necessities and raise children.
We have a big choice this year and every year: we can face those challenges together as a community, asking those who have benefitted most from the blessings of our society to contribute a bit more from their comfortable means to help make sure that all Americans have the opportunity to make ends meet, get ahead, and contribute their own unique talents and skills to our storehouse of human capital; or we can entrust our futures to those with money and power, in Washington and on Wall Street, and hope for the best.
We tried that for eight long years as we entered this century, and not only did it produce less growth and more inequality, but we lost pace with change and wasted the chance to keep America stronger than ever. We’ve been repairing the damage the last four years, and are ready to move ahead again. But now we’re being told the only mistakes made by my predecessor as president was that he was too generous, too caring, and not tough enough on kids and working people and our allies and adversaries around the world. So on November 6, the American people really are choosing between going forward and going back—between facing our challenges together or trusting the wealthy for charity—and between building on the progress we’ve made and engaging in a radical experiment that involves forfeiting our right to self-government and forgetting everything we learned in the twentieth century about how to create middle-class prosperity while taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves.

You get the drift. It doesn’t have to be that long a rap, and it doesn’t need to be presented all at once. Obama needs to tell us his understanding of how this election fits into the narrative of recent American history. He hasn’t done it yet, and while Bill Clinton touched on some of these points in his convention speech, even he hasn’t quite put it together. It’s nothing more nor less than a basic statement of progressive values contrasted with the radically conservative values that now more than ever have seized the GOP, regardless of the identity of its candidates or the specifics of their “plans.”

If Obama can pull that off, then it won’t matter as much how many “points” he scores in the debate, stylistic or substantive, or how “aggressive” or “energetic” he is. He has yet to present a full rationale for re-election, and for the “two futures” between which voters must choose, and tonight would be a real good time to start laying it out with conviction.

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.


  • TZ on October 16, 2012 3:55 PM:

    Ask Mitt what evidence does he have that a revenue neutral tax change would have a substantial impact on the economy or the deficit? If no tax cuts to the rich, where does the economic stimulus come from?

  • ceenik on October 16, 2012 3:56 PM:

    Yes! I do think Obama was trying to do a bit of this towards the end of the debate when he spoke directly to the camera, but it wasn't crisp or clear enough.

  • c u n d gulag on October 16, 2012 4:04 PM:

    Obama needs to say towards the end, "We can either have a country to Mitt Romney's liking, a nation of rich white people who will exclude you if you are poor, or middle class, or a woman, or even a white male who's not rich, all so they can make a few more bucks a year.
    Or, we can have an inclusive country, with opportunity, liberty, freedom, and justice for all.
    It's your America, people. Cherish it. And choose wisely."

  • Mark Rubin on October 16, 2012 4:29 PM:

    I think we need a strategic planning process, where we assess ourselves, short, medium and long term, and start making plans for dealing with everything we face. It's a frighteningly awesome set of issues and problems, but they won't get easier with time. Once we have the problems and possible solutions identified, we need to give someone enough time to get us on the right path. Probably all really absurd with $330,000,000+ people, but the process will inform us and, without a paln and time for implementation, I suspect we will live through bad times for decades.

  • SecularAnimist on October 16, 2012 5:17 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "Americans know from their own lives that we are in the middle of some historic challenges ..."

    As usual -- NOT ONE MENTION OF GLOBAL WARMING, which unlike every other "challenge" that Ed mentions is an imminent existential threat to human civilization, the survival of the human species, and indeed to the entire Earth's biosphere.

    Ed, please get a clue:

    "World grain reserves are so dangerously low that severe weather in the United States or other food-exporting countries could trigger a major hunger crisis next year, the United Nations has warned.

    "Failing harvests in the US, Ukraine and other countries this year have eroded reserves to their lowest level since 1974. The US, which has experienced record heatwaves and droughts in 2012, now holds in reserve a historically low 6.5% of the maize that it expects to consume in the next year, says the UN.

    "The figures come as one of the world's leading environmentalists issued a warning that the global food supply system could collapse at any point, leaving hundreds of millions more people hungry, sparking widespread riots and bringing down governments. In a shocking new assessment of the prospects of meeting food needs, Lester Brown, president of the Earth policy research centre in Washington, says that the climate is no longer reliable and the demands for food are growing so fast that a breakdown is inevitable, unless urgent action is taken."

    Do you really have no idea, no concern about what it means if the mega-drought that is currently devastating US agriculture continues for another year -- or another ten years, or indefinitely?

    Are you going to wait until we have food riots here in the USA before you give this issue any mention?

    Good grief, even Tom freaking Brokaw is complaining that Obama and Romney are both ignoring global warming, and multiple public opinion polls show that large percentages of the electorate consider it a serious problem -- AND that it is a winning campaign issue for Democratic candidates!

  • James E. Powell on October 16, 2012 5:28 PM:

    @c u n d gulag

    Good thesis. I think if he can make the language a little prettier, Obama could pull this out.

  • Hue and Cry on October 16, 2012 5:32 PM:

    I trust the president will come through. He knows what he is facing. Pundit Candy Crowley could be a nemesis--she is an absolute Republican. It will be interesting.
    Or stressful.

    Pundits clearly fed the flames after the first debate that the president was wanting in contrast to Mitt Romney.
    This afternoon Chris Matthews, who himself freaked out that night and diminished the president, is all excited for the president. NOW he talks of the lies and misinformation thrown out by Mitt in the first debate. He shows that Eric Fehrnstrom walked back the Romney lie, so many lies.
    Chris seemed to ask for forgiveness, saying it took a day to fact check. To see things more clearly with print.
    But I still feel pundits may have the public's mind.

    People out there are so easily influenced, and they were trained by the media that Mitt was their man.

    ...meanwhile...Mitt had been inept all summer and throughout September, we donated to the president, hung in there with him. Felt optimistic.
    And people actually might pick Mitt, who has pivoted positions like a ballerina, or as Arlen Spector once said, has changed positions more often than a pornographic movie queen.
    And as John Fugelsang observed, Mitt has flipped more than a crack house mattress.

    May humor help our hearts tonight!

  • Robert Abbott on October 16, 2012 5:48 PM:

    The President has been laying out those differences, with other wording, since his speech in Ossawatamee(?), Kansas on December 6, 2011. All of this advice is nice, but you don't now hear the Republicans publicly criticizing their candidate and we have to adopt that policy for ourselves. No matter our particular grievances, the other guy is so much worse that there cannot be a question about who to vote for. The carping only affects people who don't follow politics. And we have to play to win, not push our pet peeves.

  • Mitch on October 16, 2012 6:07 PM:


    Malthus could not have imagined human-induced climate chage, yet I could not help but recall this quote as I read your comment:

    "The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world."

    To this, I would add that we moderns tend to think that we have conquered nature and somehow exist outside of it. We seem to believe that our recent advances have made us greater than the world around us. I think this deserves to be called hubris, and we should all know that pride only leads one way: down.

  • RMcD on October 16, 2012 6:19 PM:

    Thank you, Ed. The single biggest head-scratcher to me in the Obama and Biden debates so far has been their refusal to name Bush directly (you don't either, but you at least make a much clearer implication), or make clear what exactly the previous administration did and how Romney aims not just to return to Bush, but to double down on that agenda. They've played too much by Marquis of Queensbury rules of white glove decorum about how to talk about your predecessors--which is odd, because I've never seen Obama as "weak" in his dealings with the GOP before (save the debt ceiling FUBAR).

    They need to go after not just Romney-Ryan, but the GOP brand itself. Politics is a team sport, and Americans have developed a lot of suspicion over the last several years about "Republicans." Hang that party label around their necks. They would do it to us if the situation were reversed. We Dems have just gotten so used to being afraid of GOP spin that we can't even see a golden opportunity when it present itself.

    THat said, I doubt Obama will go this route, and so I'm unusually pessimistic about tonight. He's proved me wrong before. I hope he's got it in him to do it again.

  • SecularAnimist on October 16, 2012 7:10 PM:

    Everything that Ed lists in his litany of "challenges" amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Perhaps someone in the town hall audience will be permitted to ask a question about global warming.

    I rather doubt it.

    And if they do, both Obama and Romney can probably be counted on to evade it -- Romney by pretending that there is scientific uncertainty as to whether global warming even exists, and Obama by suggesting that it's a problem that will affect "future generations" and that we have decades to address, while both of them compete to show what great friends of the coal tycoons they are.