Obama has a jobs plan. Why isn’t he talking about it?
FORTUNE — President Obama may have salvaged his campaign by scoring a victory in his second face-to-face with Mitt Romney on Tuesday night. He did it by taking the fight to his challenger — but not, notably, by winning a policy-based argument over who would serve the country better for the next four years.
Indeed, Obama barely bothered to present a forward-looking case at all. And while the second meeting of the candidates featured a decidedly more caffeinated performance by the President than the first, in declining to offer a detailed vision for his second term, Obama’s approach wasn’t really so different.
It’s a weird fact of the President’s reelection push that amidst a struggling economic recovery, he’s managed to bumble through to this point without spelling out much of a positive case for another turn at the wheel. In part, that’s thanks to the work his campaign has done to obscure the point by forcing a comparison with the significantly flimsier proposals of his challenger.
Polling in the days ahead will make clear whether Obama’s debate victory can stop his slide since the first match-up. If it doesn’t, he might well need a closing argument that gives voters more clarity about his plan to boost employment. But even if he does manage to preserve what’s left of his edge, the President would be well served by getting more specific. For three reasons: He actually has a plan; voters would probably like it if they knew about it; and he’s going to need a more explicit mandate if he wants to implement it during the policymaking smashup coming at the end of the year.
The plan, as White House economic advisors explained to Fortune over the summer, is to dust off the American Jobs Act, a $447 billion whopper of a bill blending targeted tax cuts, new infrastructure spending and aid to state and local governments. It debuted last fall to a stiff-arm by Congressional Republicans. But with some tweaks, it continues to represent the administration’s best thinking about how to jolt the economic recovery while meeting long-deferred needs, like rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges. The GOP’s effective demagoguing of the first recovery act has made the notion of stand-alone stimulus politically toxic. So the White House would look to wedge it into an even bigger deal to reduce the deficit through entitlement reforms and new tax revenue.
Turns out voters like that approach. Democracy Corps, the Democratic polling firm led by James Carville and Stan Greenberg, on Monday released a memo urging the Obama campaign to make a much bolder bid by selling some ideas. Their research found that not only do voters tune out when the President defends his record, they warm up when he starts talking about what he’d do next. And he generates the strongest support by “focusing on investments in the future as a way to break out of debt and joblessness,” — with 64% registering approval for the concept that we need to spend in order to grow.
Winning on that agenda would ease Obama’s path through the morass waiting just on the other side of Election Day. A staggering portion of his second-term to-do list is frontloaded into the following months, when Obama hopes to use two major policy shocks — the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and deep cuts to Pentagon and other spending known as the sequester — to wrest a legacy budget deal from Republicans.
Considering the stakes, and the compressed schedule for action, one senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said it was “mystifying” that the President hasn’t yet made the argument for his approach. “I don’t feel strongly that he has to talk about it in order to win,” the aide said. “Fighting the battle on taxes is much safer ground. But you do have to lay out the case for why this isn’t just more failed stimulus spending, rather than trying to shove it through in a big deal. They’re leaving it vulnerable.”
It may be that the campaign hasn’t cracked how to package what they have in mind. Overselling its ambition risks reminding voters of the ways Obama’s first term failed to deliver on the transformational promise of his 2008 campaign. Noting that the jobs bill is in fact leftover work from last year, on the other hand, could lead to the conclusion that the President is out of steam and would only use another four years to serve up reheated hash — a poisonous notion to voters, according to the Democracy Corps findings. But even a poll that found Obama won the second debate produced a big majority who believe he wasn’t specific about what he’d do, with more than six in 10 respondents telling CNN Obama didn’t offer a clear plan.
In order to win, he may not need to. Getting it done will be a different story.