Obama Looks to Reset Race After Spring Stumbles

“This isn’t just our work – it’s our work in progress.  You see, we’re going to keep adding to this pile, and we’re going to keep calling on President Obama and Senate Democrats to give these jobs bills a vote.” 

-- House Speaker John Boehner in a new video in which he appears alongside some of the 30 bills aimed at economic recovery passed by the Republican-controlled House.

As regular Power Play readers and viewers know, a presidential re-election campaign is a really about answering two questions: Do voters want to keep the incumbent and is the alternative plausible?

Today, amid sinking poll numbers and lousy economic news, President Obama will concede the first question.


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    Obama is giving a speech in Cleveland on the economy, in the same spot where two years ago, former President Bill Clinton pleaded for two more years for Democrats to try to turn around the sputtery economy.

    At Cuyahoga Community College today, Obama is to deliver what his campaign calls a “framing” speech in which he contrasts his economic agenda with that of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

    To return to the place where Clinton made the central argument for Democrats in 2010 -- "'Give us two more years. If it doesn't work, vote us out.'" – is a tacit admission by the struggling incumbent that a new proposition is needed.

    The opening third of the general election season has been rotten for Obama, who rode into the fight with Romney as the heavy favorite. Now, as a global slowdown increases the flaccidity of the American economy and Clinton Democrats sound alarm bells about Obama’s political strategy, the president will deliver a speech he hopes will change the trajectory of the race.

    This is another example of the emphasis on tactics over strategy by the Obama campaign. Facing a long-term problem – the deepening anxiety of the electorate over the poor economy – the Obama campaign has summoned a short-term solution – a “major” speech.

    Here, Obama’s emphasis on tactics over strategy intersects with another vulnerability of his campaign: an over-reliance on the president’s rhetorical skills.

    It is very important in politics not to believe what is written about you. Remember, the one assigned to crown conquering Roman generals with laurels had another task. He was to whisper to the victor: “Thou art mortal”

    Obama began his re-election campaign in earnest on Labor Day 2011 with a speech to union supporters in Detroit followed by an unprecedented speech to a joint session of Congress announcing his re-election theme.

    The central argument delivered in multiple “framing” speeches by the president last year and this one was that the economy was getting better, but that the Republicans' refusal to continue with his strategy for recovery – increased domestic spending financed by borrowing and tax increases on top earners – was slowing things down.

    Obama promised in several headliner speeches a Trumanesque re-election push in which he would prosecute the Republican Party for obstructing. Obama has a weakness for “major” speeches, having delivered several of them during his meteoric rise to the presidency. Obama’s national career was launched by an anti-Iraq war speech, affirmed by a 2004 convention speech and preserved by a speech on racial friction and religion during his bumpy 2008 primary fight with Hillary Clinton.

    But as president, Obama has not had the ability to change the national discussion with oratory. Certainly, his forecast that he could make the 2012 election a referendum on congressional intransigence has proven false.

    One of the problems that Obama has found in his Truman act is that Republicans have fought back aggressively. Not a day passes in which House Speaker John Boehner or his number-two man, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is not seen somewhere talking about jobs and the economy. Congress may be direly unpopular with voters of both parties, but Republicans have proven adept at looking busy.

    The next effort by Obama was to turn Romney into a “vampire” and a villain. That one may yet work, but Romney’s rising esteem among voters suggests that the tens of millions of dollars Obama spent on pouring scorn on the Republican’s wealth, business career and tenure as governor of Massachusetts did not produce a short-term bump.

    After nine months of trying to make the election about Boehner’s obduracy and Romney’s character, Obama today will try to make the election a referendum on competing plans for rescuing the economy.

    To this point, Obama has stayed very vague on the topic, embracing the slogan “forward” for his campaign motif. Romney, meantime, has splurped out several complex strategies and then proceeded to drop the subject and focus on what a lousy job he says Obama is doing.

    Today, Obama will try again at the idea of a “choice” election, in which voters are offered competing ideas on a subject and then asked to choose. George W. Bush did this successfully in 2004 by embracing the idea of the election as a referendum on his foreign policy, specifically the Iraq war.

    So far, Obama has not effectively described what the choice is beyond “forward” versus “the same failed policies.” His antagonists in the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party have been pounding the president for a failure to articulate a vision for the future and leaning too heavily on attacks on Romney and Boehner.

    Obama hopes to stop the kvetching today with his speech. The location is no coincidence either. Democrats got pummeled in the Rust Belt in 2010 and the president hopes that not only will Clevelanders be listening, but also their fellow pierogi lovers in Pittsburgh too.

    So far, Team Obama has been adamant that the “major” speech will contain no new policy proposals, but instead a provide context for the president’s existing call for more stimulus.

    As the election season grinds on, Obama has so far been unable to resuscitate his stimulus strategy with voters. The president may need to rethink his “framing” strategy and start thinking about a big, new proposal that could really reset the race.

    And Now, A Word From Charles

    “The problem with the president's analogy about the restaurant: he left out where he sits down and orders steak and martinis for the next 1,000 days and sends you and me the bill.”

    -- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier”

    Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.