Like many political advisers on this side of the Atlantic, I’ve always held a deep and secret envy of the United States’ tradition of the “big speech”. Somehow the rise of 24 hour news, the decline of deference and now social media have enlarged rather than diminished these pinnacles of the American literary-political complex. But next week’s State of the Union will be interesting even for those who find the rhetoric a little bit too rich. Although his first adverts ran last week, this will be President Obama’s chance to say to the American public: this is why I should keep my job. It was in that context that I went back to his inaugural address to see how he had defined the problems he had been elected to solve and it’s worth quoting at length:
“Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.
“Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered…These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights….
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Reading those words again, all the problems which the President identified are still there: unemployment is significantly higher than it was in 2008, growth has been fairly slow and the date when the US economy ceases to be the world number one has moved inexorably closer. Recriminations and petty grievances have not been replaced by unity and hard choices, especially on the deficit. So, if President Obama tries to hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner over the US economy, it isn’t likely to go down well.
Is that an electoral problem? Maverick and occasionally disgraced strategist Dick Morris, wrote something interesting on this in a book about his role in Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996 – the only President in the last forty years to win re-election with worse Gallup job approval ratings in January than the ones President Obama is given today. Morris wrote shortly after the 1996 election: “It is commonly assumed that elected officials are always brought down by their failures. I think they often can be brought down by their successes: they become vulnerable when they have done what they said they would do. Their mandate runs out and the public no longer has a pressing reason for voting for them.”
Morris cites an example that a UK audience will be familiar with, Churchill’s defeat in 1945, but goes on to discuss the late unpopularity of President Johnson after he had passed the civil rights and Great Society legislation, President Carter after Watergate had been resolved and the first President Bush after the foreign policy challenges of the early 1990s were addressed. Morris’ contention was that Clinton would have to find a new agenda in 1996 because the economic problems he had won on in 1992 had been solved. By contrast, there is no sense that the country’s priorities have moved on from the economy since 2008: 51 per cent of Americans named the economy or jobs as the top issue in this week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll. No other issue went into double digits.
So President Obama doesn’t have to find a new way to win in 2012. This is a fight he has won once already: he beat the Republicans on the economy in 2008 and when Americans are asked whether they trust the President or the Congressional Republicans on the economy or job creation he has the edge. When asked who is responsible for today’s economic problems, 54 per cent still pick President George W Bush, compared to only 29 per cent blaming President Obama. Rather, he needs to fit his record into his old way of winning. On that same poll, 52 per cent of Americans think he has accomplished “not much” or nothing as President, compared to 47 per cent who say the opposite. The answers on whether voters approve or disapprove of his handling of the economy are worse: 57 to 41.
Next week’s State of the Union is the President’s chance to define the job of fixing the economy as a two-term project. Some Republicans may accept that definition and try to re-fight 2008. Smarter ones may try instead to say that while the President might have been the right doctor to cure an acute condition but can’t deal with a chronic one. President Obama’s big challenge is to persuade Americans that they elected him to accomplish a single huge task and that he is still the best choice to see the job through.
In the 2000s, New Labour used slogans like “A Lot Done, A Lot More to Do” and “Forward Not Back” to achieve a similar result. But if Democrats find the language too pedestrian, they could do worse than go back and look at the very end of President Obama’s inaugural address. In it, President Obama quoted a pamphlet by English-born Thomas Paine, written to inspire the American side at a particularly low moment during the Revolutionary War. Paine’s first essay on “The Crisis” was written in December 1776: more than six years of war were yet to be fought before the British were defeated and Paine would add a new ending to his most famous quote: “these are times that tried men’s souls, and they are over.”
Steve Van Riel, Centeground Political Communications, @steve_vr