Democratic strategists and pollsters have called on the Obama campaign to change the tune of its reelection pitch, worried that the president is spending too much time rehashing the last four years and not enough time drawing a vision for the future. Last month, the Obama camp told them to quit the “hand wringing.”
But if President Obama’s speech in speech in Maumee, Ohio, Thursday is any indication, the campaign took the advice to heart after all.
Kicking off his two-day bus tour in Ohio Thursday, Obama did precisely what the Democrats had prescribed: Rather than focus on the economic recovery, he talked about growing the middle class over the long term.
“I ran for president in 2008, and some of you joined me in 2008, because we believe in that basic bargain that built the largest middle class in history, the strongest economy in the world and we felt the basic bargain was slipping away,” Obama said. The recession, “has not diminished our belief in the ideals we were fighting for in 2008,” he said.
In a series of memos and media appearances last month, several Democrats fretted that the campaign was bungling its economic message by trying to persuade people that the economy is actually improving, rather than sympathizing with their troubles.
In a memo based on of a series of focus groups, Democratic strategist James Carville, along with Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Erica Siefert argued for a new tactic. 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 wrote. “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.”
Democratic pollster Peter Hart piled on with the findings from his own focus groups. “[The public] need a sense of a vision, they need a sense of hope,” Hart wrote, “they need to be able to see that it’s not just the old Obama giving them the charisma and the cool.”
The Obama camp didn’t take kindly to the advice. In two Sunday talk show appearances in June, White House senior adviser David Plouffe rebuffed the suggestions. “Those other Democrats aren’t paying attention to what the president said,” Plouffe said on “Fox News Sunday.” He said the economy has made “progress” and that the president understands more progress is needed — a statement that flew in the face of Carville’s advice. In an appearance on “Meet the Press,” Plouffe said Democrats need to focus on winning the election, not on the “hand wringing that sometimes occurs in our party.”
In June, Obama eschewed the help in a major speech intended to reset the campaign’s message, by detailing the Republican failures of the last decade.
But his approach Thursday was much different, as he hammered the exact message Carville and his colleagues had hoped for — a big-picture view of how to help the middle class move forward.
And our mission right now isn’t just to recover from this economic crisis, although that’s job one. Our mission is to give back to America, to Americans all across the country, what’s been lost, that sense of security. Our goal isn’t just to put people back to work tomorrow, it’s also to build for the long haul an economy where hard work pays off, an economy where everybody, whether you’re starting a business or punching a clock, has confidence that if you work hard, you will get ahead. That’s what America is about.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.