By Richard Kirsch
Mitt Romney wants voters to blame Barack Obama for mishandling the crisis, but he'd also like you to forget who caused it.
In his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney tried hard to communicate how much he empathizes with the economic squeeze on middle-class families. Last Thursday in Tampa, he talked about a symbolic worker who lost one good paying job and replaced it with “two jobs at nine bucks an hour and fewer benefits.” And twice he emphasized that a majority of Americans no longer believe that our children will do better than we have done.
But one thing was missing. Romney made absolutely no attempt to explain how families ended up in such precarious financial straits. Not a word referring to what happened before 2008, other than “this president can tell us it was someone else's fault.” For Mitt, the recession was a spontaneous event. It just happened; Obama inherited it and hasn’t been up to the task of fixing the crisis. So it’s time to give Romney, the job creator, a chance to fix it.
Romney knows that any reference to the recent past will evoke toxic memories of George W. Bush. The last thing he needs to do is to remind voters that the last Republican president triggered the nation’s economic crash. Instead, he wants Americans to start the script they are bringing into the voting booth this year on November 2008. It’s okay, he’s telling us, to accept our disappointment with President Obama, and give the businessman – who really does understand our plight and what it takes to create jobs – a try. After all, when things are this bad, what do you have to lose?
The missing link in Romney’s story is a huge invitation for President Obama to fill in the blanks. It provides an opportunity for him to convince hard-pressed Americans that they should stick with him through tough times. It is a story that President Obama knows how to tell powerfully. But it’s not one that he has been telling on the campaign trail.
President Obama is not starting the clock in November 2008 like Romney did. He is reminding people that they don’t want to “go back.” But the references in his campaign speeches to the Bush years are fleeting; most of his speeches are contrasts between his agenda and Romney-Ryan vision. He absolutely needs to make that contrast, but the problem for swing voters – those Americans who are feeling the intense financial pressure and loss of hope – is that they don’t have a way of understanding which candidate’s program will work better for them. These are people who aren’t ideological and who respond to personalities, which is why Obama has been attacking Romney’s Bain record so hard and why Romney is telling voters that you can like the president but still not vote for him.
What would help move these voters to embrace the Obama agenda and keep them from voting for Romney out of desperation is a story that links how we got into this financial mess with why the Obama agenda is the better way forward. That is what the most powerful political narratives do. The right has a broad and easily understood story about limited government and free enterprise. But the left has a powerful story too, and when he wants to, as he did last December 6th in Osawatomie, Kansas, the president tells it as well as anyone. Here are sections from Obama’s speech last year that lay out how we got into this mess, and in doing so, set up why we need to go forward with him:
Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up….
When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. [Emphasis added.] America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country.…
Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren't looking out for the interests of most Americans.…
Finally, a strong middle class can only exist in an economy where everyone plays by the same rules, from Wall Street to Main Street.
In his acceptance speech this past Thursday, Mitt Romney left a huge hole to be filled in our economic narrative. Let’s hope that this Thursday in Charlotte, President Obama fills it as eloquently as he did in Kansas last December. By doing so, he will tell a powerful story that will show those swing voters that he’s not only a nice guy doing his best, but that he understands how we got into this mess and will keep working to get us out of it.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.