Sunday, September 30, 2012

Obama-Romney: Prepping for the faceoff

THE DUELING niceties of President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrived after months of figuratively beating each other’s brains out. Team Obama ├╝berbrain David Axelrod released a statement commending Romney as “prepared, disciplined and aggressive.” Beth Myers, Axelrod’s opposite number for Team Romney, released a bon mot of her own, saying the president enjoyed “natural gifts and extensive seasoning.”

This is not the campaign in a parallel universe; these damnations with great praise mean one thing: the debate season is about to begin.

Few things distill the distinctions between presidential campaigns, their styles and messages, quite like the debates. The ones for this election cycle start on Wednesday, at Denver University, and they bring opportunity and challenges for both.

The debates will be the president’s best chance to close the deal; a wave of recent favorable opinion polls and a stabilizing of the economy suggest that’s possible, and internalizing those favorables with confidence on the debate stage will be key to his success.

And the debates may be Romney’s last chance to counteract what Charles Blow of The New York Times described Wednesday on MSNBC as “the calcification of incompetence” as a baseline perception — the solidifying in the public mind of the idea that Romney is simply not up to the job.

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Obama benefits by his policy prescriptions actually being in place in America. From the Lily Ledbetter Act to the Dreamers immigration overhaul, from the strategic rescue of the auto industry (a gambit that’s yielded the U.S. Treasury handsome returns on investment) to the Affordable Care Act, President Obama has implemented tangible programs with tangible results.

His primary argument — we’ve made progress, but there’s more to do — reveals a gradualist, steady-as-she-goes approach to addressing the nation’s economic woes, one that, given the demolition-derby recklessness of the eight years before Obama, remains preferable to many Americans.

A September survey from The Associated Press and GfK asked: “Who do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?” Obama topped Romney, 50 percent to Romney’s 41 percent. The AP-GfK poll found Americans giving points to the president on handling the federal budget deficit, health care and other domestic areas of concern.

Ohio and Florida voters have more confidence in an economic rebound under an Obama second term than under Romney, according to a Washington Post poll. “Two thirds (64 percent) of Ohio registered voters said that the “loans to General Motors and Chrysler during the financial market problems” had been a “mostly good” thing for the economy,” reported Chris Cillizza of The Post on Sept. 25.

They’re not alone. The AP-GfK poll asked Americans if they thought the economy would improve over the next year, get worse or stay the same. Some 49 percent said the economy would get better; 24 percent said little would change; only 15 percent said things would get worse.

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THESE THREE debates won’t be a cakewalk for President Obama. When his boardroom game face is on, Mitt Romney can be a strong debater, with a mastery of the quotable sentence or the able distillation. During one of the GOP primary-season debates, in a relentless and slashing style, he damn near ran Newt Gingrich out of the building. The president will need to suppress his inner professor, tamp down his wonkish tendencies and really connect with people — not just the audience in the hall at Denver University but the 52 million people expected to watch across the country.

And President Obama has a tendency to freeze when speaking extemporaneously, backtracking to correct words, fumbling at times when not using prepared remarks. He sometimes hurries responses to questions; it’s a slight but striking oratorical disconnect from the president’s painstakingly deliberate approach to decision-making in the White House. He needs to relax, to stay on his toes but to quietly revel in the wind at his back, the confidence that extends from a solid, weeks-long plurality of leads in opinion polls across the ideological spectrum.

Neera Tanden, director of the Center for American Progress and the person who headed debate prep for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 race, said it plain to The Times what Obama needs to do: “The sale has been made. He just needs to reaffirm it. He just needs to not get in the way.”

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The first debate, on domestic policy, will be in some ways a bigger push for Romney than for the president. Romney has two major problems. The first, of course, is utterly generic: it’s the fact that he’s the challenger. The gravitas of the incumbency is a hard thing to topple in any election campaign; the challenger can only rely on imparting a compelling vision of how things could be under new management. But with none of his policies in place, the best any challenger can hope to do is offer ideas to make things better. Not bromides and boilerplate and zingers, however well-rehearsed. Detailed ideas. Specific ideas.

This leads to Romney’s second, specific problem: an absence of details about how he’d improve on the president’s performance in office, the details he needs to persuade the nation he’s presidential material.

From the start, his campaign has engaged in a series of glittering generalities about what he would do (or do different from the president) about everything from the prospects for conflict with a pre-nuclear-tipped Iran to resolving the debt crisis, from assisting a resolution to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian situation to enhancing opportunities for poor and middle-class Americans.

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ABC NEWS’ David Kerley and Nehemiah McKennon reported some unbelievable news on Sunday: “There are reports that the Romney team believes the most important part of debates is not policy, but memorable moments, and a key member of Obama's team said today he believes Romney will be prepared to attack with a series of one-liners and zingers.”

If that’s true, this thing may be over already. If the Romney campaign chiefs think substance will take a back seat to style points now, they’ll deserve the accusations that'll certainly follow — that Romney doubled down on the same gauzy principles and general generalities that have animated his campaign for months.

It'd be the worst campaign self-assessment since Rick Davis, Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign manager, told The Washington Post (apparently with a straight face) that the '08 presidential election was all about personality, not issues.

Mitt Romney won’t carry the day with zingers; Wednesday won't be a soundbite moment, regardless of how many of them there are. On Wednesday, the former Massachusetts governor will finally have to give the nation the particulars, the credible, achievable, scorable specifics of his economic vision for America.

And more than that: He’ll also have to show how the small-d democratic objectives of that vision aren’t being achieved, or at least attempted, by the man in the White House right now.

Hoping to needle the president for 90 minutes, to jab and poke him with broadsides and cheap shots, is just playing more of the small ball the Romney campaign has been playing all year. Romney needs a home run, inside the park or otherwise, and the only way to achieve that is by spelling things out. If not now, when?

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In the last few days, Romney’s been the beneficiary of being framed as the underdog going into the first of three debates — a sop to our love of the tale of the scrappy, come-from-behind fighter, the Rudy Ruettiger persona. But any attempt by Team Romney to exploit the underdog meme on the candidate’s behalf confronts an unavoidable fact: Throughout the campaign, Romney has made himself out to be anything but the underdog, the outlier, the amateur, the newcomer.

His campaign’s recommending narrative has been built on the pillars of his business acumen, his vast personal fortune as a direct result of that talent and its application, his previous role in managing a state government, and his much-advertised, Olympics-rescuing Experience in the Private Sector.

Does that sound like an underdog to you?

Romney came into this campaign as the purported adult in the room on economic matters; since then, his presumed authority has been self-compromised in a variety of miscues, unforced errors and damaging revelations that have badly tarnished his brand, squandering the built-in advantages he had coming into this race.

It’s hard to convincingly assume the role of the underdog when you’re the source of your own undoing. Romney goes into the first debate amid lowered expectations, but that perception may not be as liberating or strategically advantageous as he thinks.

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BRETT O’Donnell, a Republican debate coach, may have unwittingly spelled out the stakes for the president and his challenger. O’Donnell, who worked briefly for Team Romney, told The New York Times that Romney has “done a great job of convincing people that the economy’s bad. He’s got to do a better job of making the case that President Obama’s directly responsible for that. That’s got to be his focus. If it becomes about anything else, then I think the governor’s at a disadvantage.”

But the economy is, of course, about more than one thing. The economy is about the metrics and calibrations of Wall Street, the world of high numbers and Libor figures and unemployment rates, the actions of the Federal Reserve and the titans of business with experience in the private sector.

The economy’s also about what people recognize on the streets where they live, in the lives they live in. It’s about comparing your out-of-pocket costs for prescription medicine or birth control now to what it was two years ago. It’s about looking up and down your street and comparing the number of FOR SALE or FORECLOSURE signs on your block now to what it was two years ago. It’s about comparing how many car starts you hear on your block first thing in the morning now compared to a few years back. It’s about whether you get to lay in bed listening to those car starts, or you have to get up yourself and get ready to start your own car … to go to work.

Preparation for this first debate is simple: Be ready to show the country you understand the country. Be ready to show you grasp the reality of not just where we are, but also have a roadmap of where you’ll take us. And spell it out, in detail.

The economy’s personal. He who gets it, wins.

Image credits: Obama: Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images. Romney: The Telegraph via youtube. AP-GfK logo and poll graphs: © 2012 Associated Press and GfK Roper.

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