What Exactly Would Obama Do With A Second Term?
I’ve just gotten around to reading a post that Ezra Klein published last week in which he brings up a point that many commentators on both the left and the right have raised during the course of this General Election campaign. Namely, what exactly does Barack Obama intend to do with a second term:
This U.S. presidential election has come down to a candidate without real policies against a candidate without a compelling vision.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney can tell you exactly what he wants to do, but barely a word about how he’ll do it. President Barack Obama can’t describe what he wants to achieve, but he can tell you everything about how he’ll get it done. At this point, Romney and Obama are running almost perfectly opposite campaigns.
For Obama, this is a striking change. His 2008 campaign was all bold vision and grand plans. He wanted to change Washington and pass a universal health-care plan by the end of his first term. He pushed a cap-and-trade plan to slow carbon emissions and promised immigration reform, an end to the war in Iraq and a post-partisan era that would both reignite citizen control over government and make them proud of the results.
I went back and read the transcript, canceling out the relative effects of the candidates’ stage presence. On paper, Obama came off, if anything, a bit worse. It is startling how little he said about his agenda and how little passion he evinced for any cause other than stopping Romney. On the heels of a workmanlike convention speech that was particularly lacking in what used to be called “the vision thing,” his debate performance speaks of a deeper problem. Obama, at the moment, doesn’t have anything particularly inspiring to say.
It might be that polls and focus groups have given the Obama campaign reason to retreat from presenting a bold agenda for a second term. But the dulling of the vision has led to the dulling of the candidate. A quick glance at the polls suggests voters don’t seem to like that much, either.
Joe Klein at Time had similar thoughts:
His campaign staff has been brilliant when it comes to painting Romney as a hapless plutocrat but has been AWOL when it comes to promoting a second-term vision for the President. The only policy proposal I can recall in his debate performance and convention speech was to add 100,000 math and science teachers. How lame and formulaic, especially for a politician sensitive to the empty platitudes of his trade. Now that Mitt Romney has established himself as something other than an automaton, Barack Obama is going to have to come clean, descend from the mountaintop and make his best case for keeping the job.
This was a question that the President completely failed to touch upon in the October 3rd debate, and which neither he nor his campaign have spent time talking about either before or since. By contrasts, as Ezra Klein noted above, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and their campaign has done a fairly good job of at least laying out a vision of what a Romney Administration would do with the four years that the voters might give them, although they have been fairly light when it comes to the details. It’s an odd juxtaposition given the fact that the entirety of Obama’s 2008 campaign, from the day he announced his candidacy to the day he gave his victory speech in Grant Park on Election Night 2008, was based on a broadly stated vision of what an Obama Administration would look like. In many ways, he’s lived up to that vision, and in many other important respects he has failed miserably. However, at least he was offering something to the voters.
When Bill Clinton and Al Gore were running for re-election in 1996, they campaigned on the idea of a “Bridge To The 21st Century.” While it ended up becoming an over-used theme by the campaign, it was part of a broader vision of what a second Clinton Administration would look like. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan also laid out, at least in broad strokes, what they would do in a second term. For some reason, though, we’re not really getting any of that from the Obama Campaign this year, and even people on the left like Ezra Klein and Joe Klein are noticing it.
Shortly after the first debate, Michael Tomasky asked if the President even wants to win this year:
The Atlantic‘s Garance Franke-Ruta raised the question right after the debate about whether Obama’s heart was still in it. Comparing today’s Obama to the guy we watched the first time he ran, she wrote: “Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans—and even, I am sure, activists in his own party. His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that’s not who he is anymore.”
[M]ainly it’s that the reality of his term is undoubtedly so different, and so much worse, than the presidency he envisioned for himself. There’s no doubt that he did envision himself as transformational. Almost everything that had happened in his life before becoming president—succeeding at everything, often leaving observers in awe of him—clearly suggested to him that he’d conquer the presidency. He also believed, I think really genuinely believed, that he was and could be a post-partisan figure. He thought this because he wasn’t a product of the ’60s, and he said so explicitly on occasion, noting at one point in 2008 that we didn’t need to “relitigate the ’60s” anymore.
Much of this I ascribe to the panic you saw on the left after the President’s disastrous performance in the debate two weeks ago. However, it does bring up an interesting point in relation to the fact that we still don’t have a good idea of what exactly the President wants to do with a Second Term. If the President really wants to keep the job, then why isn’t he telling us what he wants to do with it during his final four years? Isn’t that sort of a relevant question that voters deserve an answer to?