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Obama’s ‘Morning in America’ Gambit

Today in Cleveland, President Obama jettisoned the theme of economic inequality that had suffused his economic speeches for more than six months, focusing instead on “how we grow faster, how we create more jobs, and how we pay down our debt.” The real issue, he said, is how we reverse the “erosion of middle-class jobs and middle-class incomes.”

In making that claim, Obama doubled down on the guiding assumption of his campaign—that he can turn the 2012 election into a choice between two models for the future, rather than a referendum on his first term. He made only a brief effort to defend his economic record, focusing instead on what he intends to do in a second term and on what he believes are the fatal flaws of the Republican/Romney agenda.

His argument for reelection is simple: Mitt Romney would take us back to the economic program that failed us under George W. Bush. The alternative, he said, is a strong and growing economy built on a strong and growing middle class—a twenty-first century economy built on a foundation of education, science and innovation, infrastructure, and clean energy, and paid for with a “balanced” program of deficit reduction that asks the wealthiest American to pay “a little bit more.”

All this invites an obvious retort: if that’s the right plan, why didn’t you implement it during your first term? Obama’s answer: the Republicans in Congress wouldn’t let me. And in November the American people should seize their chance to break this “stalemate.”

I’ve long argued that when presidents seek reelection, their record will be the focus of the campaign whether they like it or not. My critics suggest there is a real alternative—but is that really so? When Obama asks why we would return to the policies that failed us, he’s channeling the tag-line of one of the most effective political ads of all time, Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America”: “Why would we ever want to return to where we were?”

But I invite my older readers to take another look at the ad, and my young readers to look at it for the first time. You’ll find that most of it is a summary of how well things are going under Reagan’s stewardship. The concluding rhetorical question gains its force from the contrast between the optimistic experience of the present and the bitter memory of the past. The point isn’t that it was dark before, but that it’s morning now. Unlike Reagan, Obama can’t make that claim. 

But it doesn’t matter what I think. The president and his top political advisors clearly reject the view that his record is central and believe they can make this election into a choice between two futures. As a Democrat, I hope they’re right. But as a student of American politics, I fear they’re not.