President Barack Obama delivering a speech at a conference at the Washington Hilton in April. (Photo: Luke Sharrett / The New York Times)Edward Luce says what many of us have been thinking: there’s a dangerous lack of focus in the Obama campaign, all too reminiscent of previous episodes.
Mr. Luce, a columnist at the Financial Times, wrote on April 22: “In the absence of a lift-off, Mr. Obama will be vulnerable to the question Reagan posed to voters in 1980 when he turned Jimmy Carter into a one-term president: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ Mr. Carter had no real comeback. Mr. Obama is still struggling to find his.”
Above all, President Obama isn’t telling a clear story about the economy.
What should that story be? Mr. Obama’s defenders do in fact have a clear story, which goes like this: he was confronted both with a very bad economy and with complete political obstruction — which mattered, by the way, even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, because of the filibuster. So he did what he could, via stimulus and other policies, and pulled the economy back from the brink. If he hasn’t done more, well, maybe he could have gotten a somewhat bigger stimulus, maybe he could have done more on housing relief, but on the whole he did pretty well given the political environment.
Let’s not get into the question of whether he could, in fact, have done considerably more. The point for now is that this is not the story the administration has been telling, at any point. First they insisted that the clearly inadequate stimulus was just right; then they tried various anodyne slogans nobody remembers, all of which seem to imply that we’re doing just fine.
Presumably this reflects the judgment of the political team, which apparently believes that pointing out obstruction conveys an impression of weakness, and that happy talk is better than a Trumanesque campaign of hammering the do-nothing Republicans in Congress. But I have seen nothing these past three years suggesting that the political team has any idea how to play this game — and the happy talk leaves them completely flatfooted every time the economy underperforms.
For the past few months there has been an evident drift into complacency, a belief that a string of good jobs numbers will validate the happy talk.
That’s a bet that can easily lose Mr. Obama the election.