I’ve noted in several posts and in my Cagle column that I’ve concluded that Team Obama cannot be compared in political skill to the teams that elected FDR, JFK and Bill Clinton. And in the past James Carville has offered sharp warnings to the Democrats and the Obama team. Now here comes another warning from Clintonistas — part of it echoing what I’ve written in the past. To wit:
Former aides to President Bill Clinton are calling for a dramatic shift in their party’s economic message before the November election, warning of an “impossible headwind in November,” if they continue on their current path.
The two political operations — Clinton and Obama — have never seen eye-to-eye, and now some of the top voices of the Democratic 1990s have shifted into open criticism of a political operation they cast as overly negative and reactive, and failing to offer a positive set of plans for the economy.
It’s not just the Clintonistas who are saying this. Samuel Popkin, in his great new book The Candidate: What it Takes to Win–and Hold–the White House, details what incumbents have done to LOSE and what they have done to WIN. Obama is not following Popkin’s winning formula. Just two key parts of it: an incumbent needs to present a strong, affirmative reason as to why he should be re-elected and he needs a skillful political team. Do we see either here?
Clinton’s 1992 campaign pollster, Stan Greenberg, and his former campaign manager, Democratic operative James Carville, raised alarm today about President Barack Obama’s economic message in a memo written with pollster Erica Seifert for Democracy Corps (and first reported by POLITICO).
“What is clear from this fresh look at public consciousness on the economy is how difficult this period has been for both non-college-educated and college-educated voters — and how vulnerable the prevailing narratives articulated by national Democratic leaders are,” they write. “We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class.”
The election, they add, is not a vote on economic performance, but on which candidate has the best prescription for the future. They advise a program of new taxes on people earning more than $200,000, and new spending aimed at securing the future of the American middle class.
Again, this is grounded in political history. Popkin shows it in detail.
“[Voters] know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle — and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand,” they write. “They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way — not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery.”
The message they offer is similar to Clinton’s 1996 message of providing a “Bridge to the 21st Century,” though the economy is nowhere near as stable as it was in that election year.
Former Clinton pollster and strategist Doug Schoen — brought in by Clinton to replace Greenberg in a rightward tack after the 1994 midterms — echoed the memo’s conclusions in an email to BuzzFeed.
“They are absolutely correct. [Democrats] must talk about the future. [I] may have a different view of the message than they have, but they couldn’t be more correct. [Democrats] must talk outcomes and benefits to win,” he said.
But pollster Mark Penn, Schoen’s former partner and a member of Clinton’s inner circle in the White House and later a force on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Obama needs more than just a new message — but also a new economic plan.
“I think that the president needs a new economic plan that takes the country into the 21st century global economy, a plan with emphasis on education, infrastructure, innovation, and growing exports. A plan that creates new economy jobs for a country that wants to move
forward,” he told BuzzFeed, adding that “most of the messages [in the memo] are too much about raising taxes and raising spending in a public that has changed quite dramatically from 1992.”
That may not be possible: do any political realists seriously see any change at all that GOPers will give Obama any major legislation between now and election day? Are there signs yet that the administration is prepared to undertake major shifts in economic policy that don’t require Congressional action?
Buzzfeed’s piece notes that Team Obama has not reacted well from past criticisms from Clintonistas.
But in this case, if no change is made, then the Obama campaign will kind of resemble the cat who is think and doesn’t like the food its owner has put down. It turns up it nose, in effect saying, “I’ll show them! I’ll starve myself.”
If Team Obama wants to win it needs to be less finicky.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.