In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised “hope and change.”
On Thursday night at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, President Obama delivered this warning: “Now, I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy. I never have.”
That’s true, he never said turning a reeling economy around would be “quick” or “easy.”
But he did say, a month into his presidency, that he would cut the federal deficit in half in his first term.
Instead, he will preside over four straight deficits of at least a trillion dollars. Before he entered the White House, the highest annual deficit was $455 billion.
Also early in his presidency, Mr. Obama said of the financial crisis: “One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. ... If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.”
More than three and a half years later, the Labor Department announced Friday that unemployment dropped slightly to 8.1 percent in August — but that the labor-force participation rate had fallen to its lowest level since September 1981. The decline in the latter number means that the jobless rate, though painfully high, would be much higher if so many long-unemployed Americans hadn’t given up on finding work.
So the ballot-box challenge the president faces is persuading the electorate that a) his policies are starting to show positive results, and b) he has an effective plan for “moving forward” in a second term.
President Obama did score with a few zingers at the Republican opposition Thursday, including: “All they have to offer is the same prescriptions they’ve had for the last 30 years. Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.”
But after criticizing the GOP ticket for failing to offer more specifics on its economic revival plan, he failed to offer many of his own.
Yes, he still advocates raising taxes on “the wealthy” — a group that by his definition includes married couples with a combined income of $250,000 or more. Beyond that debatable notion, however, his speech was dominated by a familiar list of noble-sounding goals and dubious claims of economic progress.
The president does deserve credit for conceding that “not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.” Unfortunately, though, his policies have consistently overestimated government’s capacity to do just that.
And while he again talked a good game on entitlement reform and deficit reduction, his actions have not followed suit. He even said he was “still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission.” So why didn’t he back the recommendations that panel issued in late 2010?
In a similar disconnect between the president’s high-minded rhetoric and his sky-high-deficit reality, he said, “No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise.”
Yet he has repeatedly resisted compromise, pushing the plainly unaffordable Affordable Care Act through Congress in 2010 without a single Republican vote — and with 39 fellow Democrats voting against its final passage in the House.
Later that year, the nation’s voters sent a clear message that they disapproved of the president’s course as Republicans gained 63 seats and control of the House, and six seats in the Senate.
After a similar ballot-box debacle in 1994, President Bill Clinton moved to the political middle and easily won a second term in 1996. Mr. Clinton gave a rousing speech endorsing the president Wednesday night in Charlotte, but Mr. Obama has not followed his bipartisan example.
At least President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney agree that fixing our economic and debt messes requires difficult choices, though President Obama said Thursday night, “Our path is harder, but it leads to a better place.”
Yet so far, neither ticket has given sufficient details about what it thinks those tough calls should be.
Maybe those blanks will finally be filled in next month during four scheduled debates — three between the president and Mr. Romney and one between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan.
But while polls show this race is a toss-up, the persisting failure of President Obama’s economic policies makes his path to re-election much harder.