Obama’s week-long moment of truth in Charlotte

By J Brooks Spector 3 September 2012

Over in Tampa, Florida, they’ve packed up the bunting, the burst balloons and Clint Eastwood’s empty chair. The television producers, the commentariat and the all-important spinmeisters have now moved on to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the second half of the American political convention drama. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Even before the Democratic convention begins in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Tuesday, the two presidential candidates have been trading charges in campaign appearances, inevitably in battleground states. Mitt Romney said at one of his campaign rallies, “I don’t like the way the way the game is going under this president. If there’s a coach whose record is 0 and 23-million (referring to the jobless number), you get rid of him and get someone new.” Meanwhile, Barack Obama told his audience, “There was a lot of talk about hard truths and bold choices, but no one actually told you what they were.” He argued a Romney administration would offer “retreads of the same old policies that have been sticking it to the middle class for years.”

Even as the two sides were trading charges, most Americans were still trying to squeeze out the last moments of summer vacation-style life over the three-day weekend that includes Labour Day holiday on 3 September. Despite this being a holiday weekend, Democratic activists and politicians and journalists have been converging on Charlotte, a mid-sized city in North Carolina that is a nationally prominent educational centre and the nation’s second-largest banking centre, right behind New York City.

One interesting footnote to all of this is that because North Carolina is a “right to work” state (that is, a state in which unions do not have the right to declare a factory as closed shop, requiring membership for employees following a workers’ vote), the American labour movement’s presence at this gathering will be less in evidence than is usual at Democratic Party conventions. Organized labour will still undoubtedly put heft (and manpower) into the campaign over the last two months before the election, given its deep opposition to so many of the Romney/Ryan budget and tax ideas.

Mitt Romney’s nominating convention was all about trying to re-sculpt the narrative of his life, pumping some humanity into an apparent statue and giving him some real heart (and soul). Cynics might say this was about on par with Dorothy and Toto’s mission to get the Tin Man a heart, the Scarecrow a brain and the Cowardly Lion some courage. Okay, we’ll accept the fact that Romney has a brain – but those other two prizes are still up for grabs according to the polls about his likeability quotient. 

It is more than a little astonishing Clint Eastwood’s surreal, nationally televised dialogue with that empty chair at the convention just before the candidate spoke has apparently generated more YouTube, Facebook and Twitter buzz than Mitt Romney’s actual acceptance speech did.

This rewriting of Romney’s life was taking place even as the convention simultaneously was designed to neuter the harsher-edged Tea Party acolytes in the service (allowing them the sop of a hard-edged party platform that nobody actually reads) of capturing the remaining undecided voters in key battleground states. The tool for all this is an anodyne storyline that begins with joyously cutting taxes for the rich, trimming all that mystical “fat” from the federal budget (by cutting the miniscule federal funding for the arts and National Public Radio) but without saying what really must be thrown under that bus; saving Medicare and Social Security by cutting them or recasting the benefits downwards; but also upping the federal spend on defence (without somehow forcing congress’ own fiscal cliff agreement to kick in).

Some of this Republican narrative about fiscal probity and honest, straight-dealing may eventually be subtly undercut by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan being caught fibbing about his marathoning history when, in talking about his accomplishments, he shaved a full hour off his time. It’s not nice to lie about one’s sports achievements – people notice. Question for the class: Has Ryan cost the ticket the long distance running demographic with that whopper?

Looking forward to the actual convention, readers should expect Romney and his party to be pummelled by Obama and his surrogates when they insist Romney/Ryan reconcile the contradictions in their ideas on budgets; between the two candidates and their party’s platform; and among their party’s various factions. Concurrently, during the next two months, Democrats will attempt to consolidate their traditional support and sway that ever-diminishing pool of undecided voters in the big battleground states, one demographic slice at a time, in an effort to gain a second term of office for the incumbent president.

Given the fact that there will be little real drama in this second convention – the candidate is obviously known in advance – an important element of this convention, and the for Obama campaign more generally, will be the use of social media to engage future voters in the convention. It will be live streamed on the Web, there will be an unprecedented Spanish-language website, viewer comments will go directly into the online feed and attendees at the convention will be able to interact with those watching via the Internet. The Republican convention was live streamed, true, but not interactively the way his one is scheduled to be.

In part, this is an effort to recapture at least some of the Obama appeal from 2008 as well as to help the campaign harvest voter data that can then be fed into registration and “get out the vote” drives. Elections, after all, are won both by convincing voters to support a particular candidate as well as by making sure supporters are identified, registered to vote and – most important of all – actually voting when Election Day rolls around. Some of these efforts are in response to a cutback by national TV networks, which have limited convention coverage substantially. In fact, viewership for Romney’s speech was about 25% lower than for John McCain’s four years earlier.

And so, as the Democratic convention begins, speaker after speaker will focus discussion and oratory on the circumstances of the middle class (Why? Because that is where the great bulk of American voters are, of course) and issues understood to be close to their hearts and minds: closing off tax cuts for the rich and drawing down the national debt, even as the federal government’s funding priorities are moved towards spending more on education and training, energy innovation and building/rebuilding infrastructure. In essence, it’s the Tom Friedman/Fareed Zakaria/Alexander Hamilton national development project – updated as the Obama stimulus project round two to kickstart a real recovery.

Still, the main burden for getting viewers to stay up to watch this show and contribute to momentum, as opposed to their playing Angry Birds or trawling the cable channels for favourite repeat episodes of Law and Order will fall on Barack Obama’s shoulders – together with a big assist from Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton.  In his prime time speech on Wednesday Clinton (“The Big Dawg”, “Bubba”) will try to tie in this year’s campaign with the economic good times that were around during the previous Democratic presidency as he places Obama’s name formally in nomination. Clinton has in fact become a growing force in this year’s campaign, an informal advisor to Obama and a touchstone for focusing back upon the glory days of the party.

As things stand now, the game plan is for Obama to address a big outdoor crowd again, as happened in Denver four years earlier. This time around, though, the organizers will have to work rather harder to fill such a venue. In 2008, that effort attracted over 70,000 people – inspired by Obama’s promises of hope and change and his magnetic appeal to young, frequently first-time voters.

Obama campaign staffers are telling the media that while the president will address the continuing economic woes assailing the country and battering his poll ratings in terms of the quality of his economic stewardship, he plans to focus on the future and why his policies will succeed if they are given a second shot at things. As a result, expect to hear rather little about new initiatives and much, much more on pending policy agenda items such as immigration and tax reform.

As Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter told the media, “When the convention is over, folks with be left with a clear road map of where he thinks America needs to go. And it will be clear what his focus will be in an Obama second term.” Such an approach, of course, will sail into headwinds given that the country has 8.3% unemployment and as surveys that say close to two thirds of those polled say the country is heading in the wrong direction economically.

Nevertheless, the Politico website reported over the weekend that commentary in the upcoming issue of The New Yorker argues, “Romney hasn’t been able to convince people that the weak economy is Obama’s fault. … (A) majority of voters still blame George W Bush … Romney’s strategy was predicated on the idea that, as long as he appeared competent, all he had to do to win was be the not-Obama. But the inability to pin the weak economy on Obama has forced Romney to make a case for himself … And this has proved more difficult than anticipated. Though Romney is arguably the most successful businessman ever to run for President, his career at Bain Capital does not inspire faith in him as a job creator, since private equity has always been more about efficiency and financial engineering than about creating jobs…. (Moreover) Romney’s specific policies haven’t helped him much, either, partly because his economic speeches have been light on detail, and partly because his party’s ideology limits the kinds of solutions he can offer….”

The New Yorker goes on to say that, so far, “The economy isn’t … enough of a winning issue to allow him to run the kind of successful clarifying campaign that Reagan and Clinton ran. This may help explain why … Romney and his surrogates have abandoned their single-minded economic focus and begun attacking Obama on issues like welfare reform (and) cuts to Medicare.”

And the vigorously pro-business (and often pro-Republican) Economist reported Obama was not as guilty of economic mismanagement as Republican litany would have it. “Did Mr Obama blow it? Nearly four years later, voters seem to think so: approval of his economic management is near rock bottom, the single-biggest obstacle to his re-election. This, however, is not a fair judgment on Mr Obama’s record, which must consider not just the results but the decisions he took, the alternatives on offer and the obstacles in his way. Seen in that light, the report card is better. His handling of the crisis and recession were impressive. Unfortunately, his efforts to reshape the economy have often misfired. And America’s public finances are in a dire state.”

The convention will open formally with Michelle Obama as the featured speaker (and her popularity exceeds that of her husband by a significant degree). In addition, attendees will hear Julian Castro, the Hispanic mayor of San Antonio, Texas, as a keynoter. Taken together, Castro and the first lady are the Democrats’ rhetorical effort to bolster connections with two key demographics – Hispanic voters and women – where the Obama campaign still holds significant leads in support over Romney. Expect Michelle Obama to touch on her husband’s struggles being raised by a single mother and having to wrestle with paying off student loans – but that he also has a deep personal understanding of the travails of the middle class – in contrast to that still-hovering picture of Romney as miasmic blend of Richie Rich and Gordon Gecko. This plays to the fact that despite polls saying voters believe Mitt Romney has a better handle on managing the economy, those same polls say voters believe Obama understands the economic issues crucial to voters better than his opponent.  

Returning to the speakers’ lineup, the vice president, Joe Biden, and Senator John Kerry will be speaking on Thursday evening, prior to Obama’s acceptance speech. Kerry’s speech may be important in electoral terms. While his state, Massachusetts, will be a reliable Democratic state, Kerry is assumed to have the inside track for the position of secretary of state in a second Obama administration. As such, his presentation may be crucial to help nail down voter perceptions of the Democrats as reliable stewards of American foreign policy. This constitutes a curious reversal of the usual order of things in which Republicans have been assumed to be the party of firm national defence and security.

The problem in this for Obama, of course, is this policy area is well behind in voter concerns this year. Nevertheless, Kerry will touch on the winding down of the Iraq war, the ongoing drawdown from Afghanistan and the death of Osama bin Laden – all in sharp contrast to Romney’s vague, even Delphic, foreign policy discussions so far. And there should be a not-so-subtle reminder that these two wars came courtesy of the same party that was in charge during the initial onslaught of the financial crisis.

With only a modest bounce in support so far (although fuller, more detailed polling data should come out early in the week of the Democratic convention) for Romney and Ryan from their own earlier convention, The New York Times’ Nate Silver, one of the country’s leading election handicappers (built on years of handicapping sports matches) noted, “The Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Received mediocre television ratings – and the polling data so far suggests that it may produce only a modest bounce in the polls for Mitt Romney. The most favourable number for Mr. Romney is from the Rasmussen Reports tracking poll. That survey showed him pulling into a 3-point lead against President Obama on Saturday” – before the Democratic convention began.

During the convention, look for ongoing, close evaluations of how well the Obama re-nomination – especially his acceptance speech – resonates with key demographics and among the undecideds. Watch, too, for how well the entire Obama family moves the dial if they come onto the dais together on Thursday evening – even without Bo, the Portuguese Water Dog as an admonishment for Seamus’ treatment on the roof of the Romney station wagon all those years ago.

As with the previous week, this writer will get up early and go to bed late to watch events from Charlotte and report on them for Daily Maverick readers. DM

Read more:

  • “The president’s record is better than the woes of America’s economy suggests,” at the Economist 
  • “Romney’s Convention Bounce Appears Middling So Far,” at the New York Times
  • “Campaign puts Obama in touch with life outside the bubble,” in the Washington Post
  • “Four More Years?: A president who has had a patchy first term now needs to make a convincing case for a second one,”  at the Economist 
  • “A shallow, treacly but devastating speech,” at the Financial Times
  • “POLL: Romney Trails Empty Chair,” at The New Yorker
  • “Obama braced for battle on economy,” at the Financial Times
  •  “US politics: Mitt’s moment,” at the Financial Times
  • “Cruel Conservatives Throw a Masquerade Ball,” at the New York Times
  • “Democrats hope Charlotte convention can help deliver North Carolina for Obama,” at the Washington Post
  •  “Lie or Mistake? Paul Ryan’s Marathoning Past,” at the New Yorker
  •  “Romney’s Closing, Obama’s Opening,” at the New Republic
  • “Obama turns to technology during convention,” at the AP
  • “Romney, Obama trade jabs as Dem convention looms,” at the AP

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to military personnel at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas August 31, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron


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