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Obama: Beware These Talking Heads

Pundits and strategists on television seem to be giving President Obama the same advice for tonight: He needs to talk about his vision for the future. I suspect they are right. The economy is recovering; Steve Benen has the latest encouraging news. But the job losses of the Great Recession were enormous, the recovery could be stronger, and far too many people remain out of work. Voters almost surely want to hear what Obama intends to do about that. In other words, they want to hear about his plans.

In theory, that should be easy, since Obama has some good ideas. Among them is his proposal for an American Jobs Act, which he unveiled in a speech to Congress last fall. The plan calls for investing in infrastructure, helping states hire (or at least not fire) teachers and public employees, and offering tax breaks that target the middle class and businesses that hire new workers. It's easy to forget now, but economists who examined the proposal gave it pretty high marks. If Republicans had not dismissed it out of hand, unemployment would almost surely be lower right now. Although talking about the proposal by name might not do Obama any good, talking about its components, along with long-term investments in education, might. At the very least, Obama should put more emphasis on them than he did in the last debate. 

But any discussion about the future should also focus on what Mitt Romney proposes to do. And, at the risk of sounding paranoid, I worry that the talking heads will start treating his agenda as old news, even though it's not.

Plenty of voters are just tuning into the campaign now. Even many of those who have followed it don't really grasp what Romney is proposing—in no small part because he's tried so hard obscure it. He would like everybody to believe he wouldn’t touch health care for current beneficiaries, even though the plan would reduce existing Medicare benefits and possibly destabilize the program in the long run—while absolutely decimating Medicaid, a program on which millions of seniors (along with their families) depend. Romney would like everybody to that his tax plan won’t raise taxes on the middle class or raise the deficit, even though independent analyses have shown such promises are not mathematically credible.

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You could make a good case that the Romney agenda is actually the most important issue of this election. The spending and tax cuts, particularly if enacted together, would represent a huge transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich—maybe even the largest in modern American history, as Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy and Priorities once described Paul Ryan's very similar proposal. If successful, Romney would jeopardize guarantees of economic security that government has been providing Americans since at least the 1960s. (I say "at least" because you could make a credible case that Romney would contemplate partial privatization of Social Security, given his flirtation with the idea as recently as 2010.)

Are voters wrong to think about the future? Hardly. But the future is not simply about what Obama would do. It’s also about what he wouldn't do.

Update: I added the link to Benen's item on the latest economic news and reworded the sentence.

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