Obama's economic speech: What's he trying to accomplish?

Reelection bids often play out as a referendum on the incumbent's first term. Romney is trying to make that the case. But Obama wants the focus to be on competing economic visions for the future.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
President Barack Obama walks through the West Wing Colonnade of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 14, before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn.

President Obama will give a big speech on the economy Thursday during a campaign stop in Ohio. He’s given lots of big speeches on the economy in the past, though. What’s he trying to accomplish with this one in particular?

Here’s our take: He’s trying to get voters to think about the election as a real choice between him and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

“Oh come on,” I hear you saying, “that’s what elections are, right? They’re a choice between alternatives. We’re not North Korea.”

Well yes, strictly speaking. But presidential reelection campaigns often come across more as a referendum on the performance of the incumbent then as a choice between two visions of the future. Listen to Mitt Romney speak over a period of time, and you’ll hear him framing the election in pretty much that manner. He’s saying in essence that Obama has had his chance, and look how that turned out. Why not try somebody else?

The classic example of this approach was Ronald Reagan in 1980, when he hammered an incumbent Jimmy Carter by asking Americans if they felt they were “better off than they were four years ago” when Carter took office. Romney does the same thing, although he generally uses more words.

“If you look at [Obama’s] record over the last 3-1/2 years, you will conclude, as I have, that it is the most anti-investment, anti-business, anti-jobs series of policies in modern American history,” charged Romney Wednesday in a speech at the Business Roundtable in Washington.

The former Massachusetts governor undoubtedly will be hitting the same theme when he gives a competing speech today in Ohio at about the same time Obama goes on. (There’s counter-programming for you.)

Incumbents, on the other hand, generally want the election to be framed in a larger context. They want to explain the difficulties inherent in governing and point out that the person who wants to replace them might not better. In fact, they might do worse. That’s a more complicated political task.

Obama made this point Wednesday night at a fundraiser at the Planetarium in Philadelphia.

“The question in this election is going to be whose vision is most likely to lead us back to a point where economic growth is strong and is steady and is broad-based,” said Obama.

One contextual point Obama is almost certain to make is that the economy was already in bad shape when he took office. Polls show that argument still resonates with many voters.

A new Gallup survey shows that 68 percent of Americans still give George W. Bush at least a moderate amount of blame for the current state of the US economy. The corresponding figure for President Obama is 52 percent.

“This suggests that Obama’s argument that he is on the right track and needs more time to turn the economy around could fall on receptive ears, particularly those of independents,” writes Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport.

Obama will attempt to portray himself as the defender of the middle class, while saying that Romney favors the rich, and would take the US back to the Bush presidency, which ended with an economic thud.

That’s easier said than done, of course. But it’s a reset that many of Obama’s most restive Democratic supporters are urging the campaign to try and undertake. As a memo from Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg argued earlier this week, Obama needs to focus on the future and how he’ll help the middle class going forward, rather than bog down defending his actions of the last four years.

“We will face an impossible headwind if we do not move to a new narrative,” the pair wrote.

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