By Dick Polman
When President Obama speaks tonight at the Democratic National Convention, and seeks to buttress his tenuous poll advantage, he’ll need to answer the key questions that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan posed at their own party bash.
Ryan, addressing the swing voters who backed Obama in 2008, said: “Without a change in leadership, why would the next four years be any different from the last four years?”
And Romney, addressing the same voters, said: “If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”
That’s the essence of Obama’s challenge, on the cusp of the autumn sprint to Election Day. He has to persuade a disappointed electorate — or, more specifically, 50.1 percent of it — that he deserves another chance. He has to buck the sour national mood and persuade enough people that the next four years will be different. He needs to offer specifics on what would be different. He needs to rekindle at least a spark of the old excitement and translate it into a reasonably robust turnout.
It won’t be an easy job, not with so many hope-and-changers feeling so let down. Paul Ryan aimed his most resonant speech passage at those voters, notably the young ones: “College graduates should not have to live out their twenties in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
Indeed, if Obama does win re-election, his victory margin is likely to be far smaller than it was in 2008. That’s very unusual for an incumbent. The last five two-term presidents — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Dwight Eisenhower — all won by larger margins the second time around. It would take a small miracle for Obama to match his predecessors, especially in this era of economic stasis.
Actually, given the jobless rate and the restive army of underemployed, it’s a small miracle that he is politically buoyant at all. For that he can probably thank the Republicans. According to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, Romney has the lowest favorable rating of any nominee since the survey was launched in the early ’80s. Plus, Romney’s running mate hails from the deeply unpopular Republican House.
The president’s big advantage over Romney — one that he will seek to exploit anew at the Democratic convention — is that swing voters feel they know him. They may be disappointed in him, but they’re still persuadable because they instinctively like him. And because they like him, they may be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he inevitably says at the convention that, yes, the pace of recovery is slow, but the economic crisis is deeply rooted, and he has been slowed at every turn by an obstructionist GOP.
You can bet that Obama will address the issue of the next four years — not just by sketching out his own plans, but by painting a dire scenario of what Romney-Ryan would do to America in the next four years. Obama doesn’t want this election to be a referendum on himself; he’s seeking to define it as a choice between the forces of darkness (GOP) and light (him).
For instance, one would never have known, from watching the GOP convention, that Romney and Ryan want to turn Medicare into a privatized voucher program that would force future seniors to pay more money out of pocket; or that the party platform is so extreme in its opposition to abortion that it would compel pregnant rape victims to give birth to their rapists’ children (Romney doesn’t agree with that plank; Ryan, a longtime House ally of Todd Akin, most certainly does); or that 62 percent of the envisioned spending cuts in Ryan’s House budget plan would hit the programs that serve the most vulnerable Americans; or that Romney, in an earlier moderate incarnation, championed a health-reform law that served as the template for Obamacare (Romney, in his acceptance speech, never once mentioned his own gubernatorial achievement).
Presumably, Democratic planners won’t cede the stage to a seemingly daft Hollywood celebrity. Clint Eastwood’s interminable argument with an empty chairwas a classic metaphor for today’s GOP: an angry old white guy fuming about the Obama of his addled imagination.)
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services..
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