‘One question, Mr. President,” read the words on the front cover of this week’’s Economist, behind a silhouette of the back of Barack Obama’s head, “just what would you do with another four years?”
It’s a good question, and one that’s still open as Barack Obama prepares to deliver his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in rainstorm-plagued Charlotte Thursday night.
Other presidents seeking reelection have usually provided a more or less convincing answer. George W. Bush said he would try to reform Social Security and advance energy independence.
Bill Clinton said he would provide “a bridge to the 21st century,” which turned out to include significant tax cuts and a lunge toward Medicare reform.
Bush failed to deliver on Social Security, and Clinton failed to deliver on Medicare, but both tried to pivot from a first-term to a second-term agenda. The first George Bush, in contrast, didn’t seem to pivot. He gave the impression he’d just keep going on. That wasn’t good enough for voters.
Obama similarly has not pivoted. Unlike Clinton, he did not shift ground when his party was rejected in the off-year election.
For a second term he has been calling for more infrastructure stimulus, more unionized teachers, and (though he has said it’s harmful in a time of economic sluggishness) higher tax rates on high earners.
Republican strategist Karl Rove had a bit of fun with this last week in his Wall Street Journal column, imagining how a more moderate and compromising Obama would be running well ahead now, as Clinton was at this point in 1996.
Instead, the Obama campaign, with assists from mainstream media and during the months it had a money advantage, has concentrated on demonizing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Clinton did this to Bob Dole with great effect in 1996. It hasn’t worked so well this time.
The Democrats’ other strategy is to rouse the enthusiasm of their various disparate constituencies. This hasn’t worked for an incumbent Democrat since Harry Truman in 1948.
But it is something you fall back on given the nature of the Democratic party. The Republicans have always had a core constituency of people considered by themselves and others as typical Americans — Northern Protestants in the 19th century, white married Christians today — but who are by themselves less than a majority.
The Democratic party has typically been a coalition of out-groups — white southerners and big-city Catholics in the 19th century. Today, the coalition includes blacks and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics, unmarried women, members of the millennial generation, public-employee-union members, and, most important, the group that demographer Joel Kotkin dubbed “gentry liberals.”
They don’t always agree. Blacks tend to oppose same-sex marriage, while gentry liberals strongly favor it. Labor unions want the Keystone pipeline, while genteel environmentalists want to kill it.