Stuart Stevens, who is Mitt Romney’s chief strategist, is also a novelist and memoirist, and last week he offered me a couple of bon mots that help frame the challenge President Barack Obama faces as the economy sputters.
“They think this campaign is ‘Travels with Charley,’ Stevens says. “We think it’s more ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’”
“Travels with Charley” is John Steinbeck’s gentle quasi-memoir of traveling across the country in 1960 with his poodle. “The Grapes of Wrath,” for those Americans who slept through eighth-grade English, is his searing novel of the migrant Joad family in the Depression.
The crack was aimed in part at Stevens’ opposite number, David Axelrod, who in January famously tweeted a picture of the Democratic president with his dog Bo in a car and the message: “How loving owners transport their dogs.” Axelrod was exploiting the oft-told story of the Republican Romney putting the family dog Seamus in a kennel on the roof of the car en route to Canada.
Stevens insists that this election will have everything to do with the economy and nothing to do with how Romney treated his dog, and his second quip reflects the same analysis in a more positive context. “They think the election is about eHarmony.com,” he says, referring to the dating website devoted to measuring compatibility. “We think it’s about Monster.com,” the job-finder site.
This is part of the Boston team’s effort to make the balloting a rehire-or-fire referendum on the president’s economic performance. The Chicago team, of course, wants the whole thing to be a choice between a president you like and trust to be on the side of the middle class, and a candidate you don’t.
Obviously, any election involving an incumbent is both a referendum and a choice, but this one has recently become more of a referendum than Chicago would care to admit.
The president had shifted early this year from a 1948 Harry Truman-style attack on the “Do-Nothing” Congress to a modified 1984 Ronald Reagan-style “Morning in America” message, about the economy rebounding after the crisis Obama inherited. Now, given the dispiriting economic news, it’s back to 1948, with a little of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 attacks on the competence of a former Massachusetts governor (Michael Dukakis) and George W. Bush’s 2004 attacks on a flip-flopping Massachusetts stiff (John Kerry) thrown in.
The president’s poll numbers aren’t down much yet, but just wait. Even if Obama fully inhabits the role of Trumanesque brawler that liberals hunger for (and which doesn’t come naturally to him), sooner or later he’ll need to adjust his strategy.
In an economy headed in the wrong direction, comparison campaigning is necessary but not sufficient. It might not matter much to frustrated voters that we’ve tried the Republican recipe for growth (tax cuts and deregulation) in the 2000s and it failed, or that Romney was 47th out of 50 governors when it came to job creation in his state. The tie — two failed job creators — goes to the challenger.
That means Obama must match his focus on the choice with more work on the referendum side — more affirmative reasons to vote for him. He has begun reminding voters of the American Jobs Act he pushed last fall that would help small business and create a million new jobs, his 2012 State of the Union “Built to Last” long-term investment agenda, and last month’s congressional “To- Do List.” The problem is, they all blur together.
Meanwhile, the president’s support last summer for reducing the debt by $3 trillion dollars (after already cutting it by $1 trillion) has been forgotten amid the acrimony following the failure to reach a “Grand Bargain.”
Instead of referring voters to a hodge-podge of previous proposals and stymied congressional deals, Obama should reintroduce his ideas as a clear and cogent renewal plan for the country.
That second-term agenda needs some new elements. A youth advocacy group, Our Time, has created a petition campaign seeking a million new jobs for young people in teaching, nursing, park restoration and infrastructure repairs. Obama, who has been silent on national service, should say yes immediately and own that issue. Without more energy among under-30 voters, he loses.
Direct government hiring of able-bodied adults, out of fashion since the Depression, also deserves a fresh look. If the private sector isn’t producing enough new jobs, the public sector must step in. Who will that proposal offend? Only voters already siding with Republicans.
Finally, Obama should say forthrightly that although he doesn’t support everything proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission, its combination of short-term Keynesian spending and long-term deficit reduction through entitlement reform and tax increases was basically right and that he regrets not saying so earlier. This admission — better late than never — will appeal to business-minded independents and voters looking for a little humility.
To win, the president needs to capture Franklin D. Roosevelt’s spirit of “bold, persistent experimentation,” not just figure out new ways to hit Romney. Of course, this renewal plan is DOA in Congress before the election. So what? At least Obama will have put down a leadership marker.
For all the spin, Stevens was on to something. Whichever candidate makes the better case for getting Tom Joad a job off Monster.com will win the election.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)