For months, President Obama and his political team have worked to frame the November election as a choice. Their motivation for doing so is understandable, as the other option – a public referendum on their record – is likely to end in their defeat.
But while Obama strategists talk about presenting voters with a choice, the political reality is such that their only chance to win in November is to make the election a referendum on the other guy. President Obama and his advisors are anti-choice because they understand a sharp contrast – one that puts their record up against a conservative vision for America – is also likely to fail.
As if to prove the point, President Obama bypassed an opportunity to defend his record during a major speech at the Associate Press Luncheon. Instead, he used the bully pulpit and audience of AP editors and writers to deliver a bitterly divisive speech, which happened to coincide with Mitt Romney’s coronation as presumptive nominee.
In the speech, he paid lip service to the choice meme: “I can’t remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so unambiguously clear.” But he quickly transitioned into what was characterized by many in the media as an “attack on the GOP budget.” President Obama used phrases like “thinly veiled social Darwinism,” “Trojan horse,” “impose a radical vision” and “gutting the very things we need.” The media used terms like “assail,” “denounce,” “blasts” and “assault.”
President Obama’s strategy was clear: attack, assail, assault, blast and denounce the other guy…make the upcoming election about the other guy’s ideas. It was an attempt to reshape the election as a referendum against Paul Ryan’s budget plan, as opposed to the President’s record and vision for “our future.”
None of this should be surprising, though. Last April, a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House told POLITICO “unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.” And with his signature domestic accomplishment – Obamacare – under assault by the Supreme Court and widely rejected by voters, the campaign will be hard-pressed to run on accomplishments.
Romney strategists are well aware of this dynamic. The candidate told the same group of AP writers and editors “It’s one of his [Obama’s] favorite strategies – setting up straw men to distract from his record.” On MSNBC, Democrat National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz attempted to push back on the notion the President Obama is running away from his record, saying, he has “a vision that he has laid out and that he has been moving us toward.”
Notice, she is not touting his “accomplishments” but rather his vision. Mitt Romney believes that vision is “a new government-centered society.” Whether you agree with that characterization or not, the President’s record speaks for itself: one million fewer jobs; a record 37-straight months with unemployment above 8%; near-record gasoline prices; soaring health care prices; four straight trillion dollar deficits; and dozens of failed bets on “green” energy.
Presidential reelection campaigns are historically seen as a referendum on the previous four years. “We can’t afford 4 more years” will be a popular slogan this fall, and the Obama campaign knows it makes any defense of their record politically difficult. Republicans will seize on this vulnerability, and understandably so. Their challenge, however, will be to resist Conventional Wisdom, which says they must only run a referendum on the President’s record.
While some lawmakers in Washington prefer to be cautious by focusing solely on the President, others recognize a referendum may be a winning political formula, but it is not a formula to save America. For his part, Congressman Ryan said Republicans “relish the debate about two futures.”
That’s a good thing because with our country at a crossroads, Americans deserve a choice. Only by providing the greatest possible contrast between the “competing visions of our future” can we secure America’s future prosperity. President Obama should not try to run from his record, nor should conventional wisdom lead Republicans to run from their plan.