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A referendum or a choice?

Obama;s Pittsburgh speech contained clues about his '10 campaign strategy

On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a speech that explicitly signaled his campaign themes for the '10 congressional elections. It's a worth a second look, if only to get a fix on what he plans to say this autumn.

Actually, for many readers, this might be a first look. Obama's remarks in Pittsburgh may well have dominated a normal news cycle, but he was trumped by the monumental oil spill, the advance stories on the potentially titillating Blagojevich trial, and the latest overblown chatter about the faux scandal du jour - the so-called Obama job offers to Pennsylvania's Joe Sestak and Colorado's Andrew Romanoff. (Thankfully, some people have a sense of perspective. Mickey Edwards, a former House Republican leader, nailed it perfectly yesterday, with withering sarcasm: "Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, I'm shocked, shocked, by the revelation that the de facto leader of a political party attempted to improve his party's prospects for victory in an important election by attempting to avert a potentially damaging intra-party primary.")

Anyway. While the Pittsburgh speech was ostensibly designed to sketch out the broad contours of Obama's long-term agenda on everything from the economy and energy to education and the environment - he calls it "the new foundation," a slogan he first invoked in April '09, which means it has yet to catch on - key rhetorical passages were nakedly political and clearly geared for the short term. For instance:

"As November approaches, leaders in the other party will campaign furiously on the same economic arguments they've been making for decades. Fortunately, we don't have to look back too many years to see how their agenda turns out....And now we have a choice as a nation. We can return to the failed economic policies of the past, or we can keep building a stronger future. We can go backward, or we can keep moving forward. And I don't know about you, but I want to move forward. I think America wants to move forward."

Obama doesn't want the '10 congressional elections to be framed as a referendum on his performance; rather, his aim (as evidenced above) is to frame the elections as a choice between the Republican and Democratic parties - and to define the Republican choice in the worst possible terms. Accordingly, the GOP is described as a party that intrinsically looks "backward," with obstructionism written into its DNA. Other passages:

"(The GOP believes) that government has little or no role to play in helping this nation meet our collective challenges...There were accusations that Social Security would lead to socialism, and that Medicare was a government takeover...The other party has staked their claim this November on repealing health insurance reforms instead of making them work. They want to go back. We need to move forward."

Those latter two sentences - the essence of the choice, as Obama sees it - were repeated a number of times during the speech, with campaign-style cadence. But swing voters this year aren't likely to accept his framing unless they see tangible evidence that he is indeed moving the nation forward. And the best evidence would be in the jobs sector.

In his Wednesday speech, Obama declared: "An economy that was shrinking at an alarming rate when I became president has now been growing for three consecutive quarters.  After losing an average of 750,000 jobs a month during the winter of last year, we've now added jobs for five of the last six months, and we expect to see strong job growth in Friday's report...This economy is getting stronger by the day."

Unfortunately for Obama, today's report didn't meet his expectations. The economy did gain 431,000 jobs during May, but 95 percent were U.S. Census hires - which means that the private sector job growth (41,000) was pitiful in comparison to the private job growth in April (218,000). Unless those numbers rapidly improve, '10 swing voters are likely to view the election as a referendum on Obama, not as the choice that the president sought to frame on Wednesday. As Obama himself admitted in his speech, "it's not going to be a real recovery until people can feel it in their own lives."

He said that his agenda is geared to benefit Americans in the long term, "even if we can't always see those benefits in the short term." Mindful as he is that elections are staged in the short term, he seemed almost fatalistic about the likely losses five months hence.


The sole proprietor of this blog is on the road for the month of June. Virtually all June posts will be briefer than the norm, except on those rare occasions when posts won't show up at all. Apologies in advance for this disturbance in the force. The standard verbosity will return on Monday, June 28.