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Opinion

After the confetti, Obama faces a reality check

Voters still need hope and change. But it is much harder for Obama to justify four more years, given historic numbers of Americans living in poverty, record high food-stamp use, and sluggish job growth. Last night, the president only partly succeeded in pointing the way ahead.

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No amount of lofty rhetoric can disguise the reality facing the president outside the arena. As the confetti settles and voters take stock of the real state of the union, they may be less enticed by Obama’s plea for four more years. What they needed most was a convincing plan for the next term. Obama generally delivered, outlining policy priorities and casting a broad vision of his goals going forward. But his plan was neither complete nor convincing.

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Much like Mr. Romney and running-mate Paul Ryan’s oft-cited claim they will create 12 million new jobs, Obama also made bold promises waiting to be broken. He promised to add a million new manufacturing jobs by 2016, double exports, meet a range of other evenly-rounded targets, and do it all while reducing deficits by $4 trillion. Such a litany of target numbers is not a detailed plan; it is fodder for future fact checkers.

Public policy, of course, isn’t this simple. Presidents don’t have that much unilateral control, and policy proposals rarely live up to the hype. If government leaders knew the perfect formulas for job creation, trade expansion, or any other laudable goal, we would have no need for debate. None of us are well served when presidential candidates over-promise and pander. In a time of growing cynicism and distrust of government, voters need more straight talk and fewer false promises.

As enticing as it may be to evaluate the conventions and unpack the speeches, the real battle of the presidential election is just beginning. The party faithful who gathered in Charlotte and most of the viewers who watched from home decided on their candidate months, if not years, ago.

But many of the voters who will determine the election outcome have yet to tune in, moreover choose sides. According to a Pew Research Center poll last weekend, only 29 percent of Americans are paying attention to the 2012 campaign. In 2008, 1 in 10 voters picked a candidate within a week of the election, and 4 percent reached a final decision on election day.

Last night, Obama contrasted two competing visions – one brimming with optimism and best-case scenarios, the other a harsh caricature of Republican goals. Republicans will “gut education” while Democrats will help all children achieve their dreams. Opponents of Obama’s blueprint for health-care reform don’t have honest differences on policy, they just say “if you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick.”

Such a rendering may work well with stalwart Democrats, but many moderate Republicans and independents will recoil from this less-than-charitable interpretation of some of their deeply-held views. If the president wants to win re-election, he and his party have to find a better way to convince undecided voters to choose Obama’s way forward.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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