He had just been through the roughest patch of President Obama’s re-election struggle and yet senior adviser David Axelrod seemed, if not quite serene, then at least amiably stoic.
Chatting in his spartan office at the Obama campaign’s mother ship in downtown Chicago last week, Axelrod reflected on a pep talk he had delivered the previous day to the operation’s vast and impressively young staff, urging them to ignore all the intimations that a gaffe, some bad economic numbers, and a bit of downward movement in some polls spelled doom for their cause.
“There is some virtue in being old in this business,” Axelrod, 57, said, reliving what amounted to his moment as a coach asking the team to dig deep after a tough quarter -- though he used a different metaphor. “It’s like being an old astronaut. I’ve been up to the space shuttle before. I've experienced the G’s before. It doesn't make them less comfortable. But you’ve experienced them before.”
As Axelrod spoke, his boss' image appeared on the television screen on his desk. Obama was offering a speech in Cleveland aimed at giving substance to Axelrod's hopes by shifting the dialogue away from immediate troubles to a larger choice “between two paths for our country.”
Whether or not last Thursday’s rhetorical volley between Obama and Mitt Romney on the economy was one of those “defining” or “game-changing” moments that pundits love to tout, it was a powerfully instructive passage in the campaign. It made clear not only how fundamentally different Obama's and Romney’s ideas for the future are, but also how the next four months or so will involve a bitter contest to shape the way voters perceive what’s at stake in November.
Romney will talk a great deal about economic freedom and enterprise, but mostly he wants to make this a classic throw-the-bums-out election. His core message is about as simple as political arguments come: Things are bad. Obama didn’t fix them. Try the other guy, i.e., me.
Obama is not blessed with the opportunity to be simple. He has to show that he knows things are bad for a lot of people but also insist that his policies made things a whole lot better than they would have been. He has to argue that the Republicans are blocking his proposals to improve the economy, but he doesn’t want to look like a politician inventing an alibi.
Above all, he has to persuade swing voters (Axelrod estimates that, at most, they constitute 15 percent of the electorate) to see this as something other than an ordinary election. Obama’s speech was his most comprehensive effort to date to (1) tie Romney to George W. Bush's tax cuts, his deregulation policies, and those “two wars on the nation's credit card”; (2) harness Romney to Republicans in Congress; and, most important (3) make clear that Romney would break with the country’s long-standing consensus “that the market couldn’t solve all our problems on its own.” Government, Obama insisted, still needs to help workers, entrepreneurs, and consumers alike.
This last point actually is an accurate description of the policy choice this fall. It means that Obama has a powerful interest in a rather high-toned, philosophical debate over taxes, spending and also over how jobs are created, how economies grow, and where government fits into the picture. In turn, this will prompt a battle to influence the media’s narrative. Since Romney wants the country to render an uncomplicated negative verdict on Obama’s stewardship, he has every incentive to keep ideological subplots and policy contrasts out of the storyline.
Axelrod was thus in a reasonably good mood as he watched his candidate on the small screen, figuring (correctly as it turned out) that a lengthy, specifics-heavy speech would force at least a day of news stories on the “big choice” theme.
He even ventured into contested territory by insisting, contrary to all the reports that Obama’s soaring 2008 themes were dead and buried, that “this is still about hope -- our hope is still about the things we need to do to secure the future.” And with the campaign trying to connect Romney to the Bush past, is it outlandish to imagine that it would be tempted to resurrect the other half of 2008's formula with the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Keep the change”?
Perhaps that’s a step too far, but it captures Obama’s desire to become a change agent again by turning his opponent into a restorationist.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).