The conventions are all about having fun, but if Obama wins reelection, he has to get serious about his governing strategy.
Nowadays, you have to see both parties’ conventions as theme parks or Three Stooges humor. As a viewer, you’re Dorothy in Oz or Alice through the looking glass. Conventions used to be about making a choice of nominee. Then, for a while, they were about making a choice and marketing. Now they’re only about marketing. They are not about truth; heck, major campaign spokespeople for Romney have directly rebutted the notion of truth. They are not about policy, and they certainly have nothing to do with governing. They are about wearing funny hats, having some fun, and insulting the other guy. For me the high point of the whole Republican convention was ol’ Clint Eastwood talking to the chair.
Until Bill Clinton showed up, the Democratic convention wasn’t a lot different. To alter slightly a phrase President Clinton has used, he “put the corn where the hogs can get to it.” No one from the Obama campaign, including President Obama, has ever put the arguments for a second Obama term or against a Romney term so well, or even come close. Having worked for President Clinton, I start out liking the man and in awe of his capacity to hold an audience. But his abilities go beyond that; he takes policy and governing seriously, he deals with his political opponents rather than simply dismissing them, and he respects his audience. His arguments are never simple or trivial. He made this convention by himself, and he made Mitt Romney look small.
Now it’s President Obama’s turn. I hope he takes a risk and talks about the realities of his very likely second term. The almost entirely substance-free Republican convention gave him the license to do it, and Bill Clinton gave him the political space. We’ll see. But in any case, the odds are high that President Obama is going to have to talk for real about his second term in about 60 days.
What we know generally is that conventions rarely affect elections; the average “bounce” is two to four points and even that goes away within days. Romney’s bounce looks to have been on the very low end of that range and to have gone away. President Obama will probably see roughly the same result. The truth is there are very, very few truly undecided votes out there to move one way or the other.
And in the absence of a big, sustained bounce, the various oddsmakers say this election is heading toward an Obama win. The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog gives Obama a 75 percent chance of winning, with 307 electoral votes. Nate Silver’s analysis says there wasn’t any Romney bounce. Election market sites Intrade and Iowa Election Markets give Obama a 59 percent and 64 percent probability of winning. And Real Clear Politics in its “no toss-up states” projection gives the President 332 electoral votes. All of the same sites suggest that Republicans easily hold the House and have a marginally better than 50 percent chance of winning the Senate (in almost any scenario, the Republicans gain seats in the Senate).
Results could be different; if you toss an unbiased coin a million times, there are long runs of either heads or tails. But this doesn’t feel like a “change” election to me. We’re probably in for another four years of (very) divided government. So we move to reality. How will President Obama choose to manage his presidency under the circumstances he will surely face? More to the point, how will he, from the start of his second term, convince his audience that he intends to manage his presidency?
As I’ve said a number of times, I do not think this administration has been good at strategic management. Harold MacMillan was right when he said that events were the biggest factor in the success of any prime minister, but there are still choices to be made. There were in President Obama’s first term, and there will be in his second. In this administration’s first term, there were four critical points at which I see little evidence that a hard-eyed strategic choice was involved: (1) an early over-interpretation of his mandate, (2) the decision to go for health reform and, in essence, drop ownership of the economic story, (3) a decision not to pick a fight with Congress in March 2011 over shutting down the government — a fight he would have won, and (4) a decision not to endorse some version of Simpson-Bowles or Rivlin-Domenici.
If the president is to accomplish anything, his administration has to be better strategically and harder-edged from the start of the second term. If it is better in these ways, I would argue that the chances of a successful second term are much higher than generally believed for two reasons. First, after the Republican far right indulges in a post-Romney-defeat ritual bloodletting, the party as a whole is going to realize that it has been taken down a blind alley and has to find a way back. Republicans will have to make some sort of deal. Second, the U.S. economy is about to start performing better than we expect.
The basic choice the president faces is either to clear the underbrush and set the stage for focusing on our real future, or continue today’s protracted standoff between the current left’s and right’s version of the 1950s as the ideal society. The current squabbling about debt, deficits, taxes, spending, and entitlements is mostly about the underbrush and is preventing us from looking at the future. And the squabbling is occurring mostly around the contours of an agreement everyone knows has to be reached.
I do not in any sense mean these issues are unimportant, and I certainly do not mean they aren’t hard. But we are not Spain or Greece; reasonable solutions exist, and we have time if we act. If we put ourselves on a path that plausibly solves these problems — within the range of what “solve” means in politics — over a decade, then we can move on. But we have to start. The president would do himself — and us — a big favor if he put these issues in his rear view mirror by endorsing Simpson-Bowles, or something as close to it as he can get, on November 7. To generalize that point, the president needs a strategy to win during the impending post-election lame duck session of Congress and to avoid looking like just another creature in that zoo.
If he does this — which is undeniably difficult — he can then spend his entire second term focusing on another truth that becomes increasingly apparent: America has a very bright future if we can somehow avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.