Sunday, September 9, 2012

The choice

WHEN PRESIDENT Barack Obama put the capstone on a practically flawless Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on Thursday night, he did so amid a national electorate with the smallest number of undecided voters in years. When he took the stage, he gave voice to what we really already know: What’s coming in November isn’t a contest between competing interpretations of “the American Dream,” despite what many have said.

That very phrase is used and overused and overworked so often that it fails to define anything so much as its status as a way to express an elastic improvisation, a very individual experience. My American dream don’t look like yours don’t look like hers don’t look like his.

The November election will be a contest between competing visions of American reality, of the country itself. President Obama showed he got that on Thursday night.

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“... [W]hen all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation. Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs, the economy; taxes and deficits; energy, education; war and peace, decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children’s lives for decades to come.

“And on every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”

The president outlined the options in the Nov. 6 election as a stark, antipodal proposition: a nation of strength, empathy and government initiatives in pursuit of small-d democratic objectives abroad and accelerated economic recovery at home; or a nation whose future as incubator of the middle class would be captive to the moneyed corporatist values advanced by Team Romney, and by extension the values of a party that never saw a tax cut for the wealthy it didn’t like.

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“Now, our friends down in Tampa, at the Republican convention, were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right,” the president said.

“They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they had to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years: “Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.”

The president repeatedly came back to the idea of choice; he used the word itself or its variant “choose,” almost two dozen times describing the options in energy creation, expansion of educational opportunities, and leadership on the world stage. It was a hardly subliminal way of framing the issues facing the country in this election, as well as subtly identifying the candidates that define those choices.

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AND IN a challenge wrapped in a fact, President Obama called out the opposition just by stating the obvious. “You know, I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention,” he said. “The times have changed, and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President.”

The crowd reacted to that with thunderous applause.

When he said it, you couldn’t help but think that Obama, a big fan of the movies and no slouch about pop culture, was channeling Andrew Shepherd, Michael Douglas’ presidential character in “The American President” (1995).

In the Rob Reiner film, Shepherd is constantly under verbal attacks by his election opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, who finds a way to end every speech with the words: “My name is Bob Rumson, and I'm running for President!”

In the film’s pivotal scene, in a news conference in the White House Press Room, the president takes the fight to his challenger with a speech that combines policy and passion, and ends with the still-memorable throwdown: “My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President.”

Coincidence? You be the judge.

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What comes next in the world of our American president is a focus on the everyday concerns of the people he leads, and more promotion of the strengths that have carried President Obama to the cusp of a re-election that would be as historically resonant as his first election was.

The Democrats underscored the importance of those constitutent concerns at the convention, when congressional candidate and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and womens’ rights advocate Sandra Fluke spoke on the president’s behalf.

Undecided voters hang in the balance, and apparently fewer of them now than in at least two previous presidential election cycles. “Only about five percent of the voters remain undecided 64 days out from the election, down from 10 percent in 2008 and 15 percent in 2004,” Matthew Dowd, a former GOP consultant, said Tuesday to The Daily Caller.

Rasmussen Reports’s got the number tighter than that. The polling organization reported Sunday that only 3 percent are undecided. Its daily tracking poll found President Obama had the support of 49 percent of voters nationwide, with Romney at 45 percent.

But that 1 to 3 percent of undecided voters could be what lawyers like to call “dispositive.” They could be the pivot-point demographic that determines the outcome of, hyperbole aside, the election that marks the course of the United States for at least a generation. The undecided are likely to be the deciders.

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WITH CHARLOTTE in the rear-view mirror, the choice for American voters may come down to the effectiveness of competing messages. One of the messages the Romney campaign is lately using reanimates the celebrated Reagan quote from October 1980, revives the hoary rhetorical Occam’s razor that pretty much cemented that presidential campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

For years now, and certainly since the financial crisis of 2008-9, Republicans have considered that the dispositive question on the fitness of Obama as president; they’ve held that as a kind of oratorical ace-in-the-hole whose comprehensive neatness presumed to settle everything in their favor.

Maybe not. By several objective metrics (and some that aren’t), the nation is far better off now than in 2008: in private-sector jobs gained, in oil and gas drilling and energy exploration, in lower taxes for the middle class, in stock-market performance, in prestige abroad, in the absence of Osama bin Laden from the scene — in the expansion of liberties and opportunities for women, veterans and undocumented immigrants seeking a way to their own American dreams.

For months, and certainly since the Romney campaign launched, Republicans have tried to define the Obama administration as some kind of a lab test in participatory democracy. That couldn’t be more wrong.

The last four years have been no more an experiment than America itself is an experiment. And sure as a presidential election is a referendum of the previous four years of the occupant of the Oval Office, it’s necessarily also a choice of, a vote of confidence in, the direction for the next four years.

And we’ll decide that in November.

Image credits: President Obama: Jason Reed/Reuters. “The American President” poster: © 1995 Castle Rock Entertainment/Columbia Pictures. Fluke, Castro: From DNC pool video feed via MSNBC.

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