Magazine article The New Yorker

Six More Months

Magazine article The New Yorker

Six More Months

Article excerpt

Face it: the general-election campaign is under way. Rick Santorum has disappeared, and Newt Gingrich is still politically dead. With the Republican nomination wrapped up, Mitt Romney has dropped the severe conservatism, stopped denouncing the children of illegal immigrants, and started claiming authorship of the auto-bailout plan, which he had formerly dismissed as a goodbye kiss to the industry. By Election Day, he will have replaced so many parts so many times that nothing of the original Romney will be left but the hair.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has released a seven-minute video called "Forward," which lists the President's achievements in a dramatic montage ("Iraq War Ended . . . Libya Liberated . . . Osama bin Laden Dead . . . Unemployment Benefits Extended . . . Health Care Reform Passed"). Two things about the video are striking. It shows what a lousy job the Administration has done in waging the rhetorical battle: how many voters know or will believe that the stimulus bill "saved up to 4.2 million jobs," or that middle-class taxes are at "historic lows"? Second, the soaring piano accompaniment is out of tune with the facts as many Americans are living them. Last quarter, the economy grew by a paltry two per cent. For months, unemployment has been stuck above eight per cent, with nearly thirteen million people more or less permanently out of work. The open-ended vagueness of the reelection campaign's one-word catchphrase reveals Obama's problem. Forward from what, and to what?

When Ronald Reagan took office, in 1981, unemployment was at 7.5 per cent, and soon rose to much higher levels. By the time he ran for reelection, in 1984, the number was back where it had started. Obama's first term has followed the same path. Reagan argued for a second term on the assumption that the answer to his famous question from 1980--"Are you better off than you were four years ago?"--would be favorable the second time around. He told the country to stay the course, and his "Morning in America" ad ended by asking, "Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?"

Obama will have a harder time getting the right answer to that question. Voters knew what staying the course meant in 1984: less government, more capitalism. In 2012, the meaning of Obamanomics isn't so clear. The President has governed as a left-of-center pragmatist who believed that good policies and their good effects would suffice in winning the debate. This approach put him at the mercy of the economic numbers, which his Administration repeatedly prejudged to be improving. With the numbers now mixed or unclear--manufacturing up, household income down, growth picking up, growth slowing down--and the national mood hardly buoyant, Obama is left to describe to voters the larger vision that has guided all those accomplishments which most of them have never heard of (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Credit CARD Act). This ideological reticence might explain the campaign's restless search for a compelling slogan. According to Politico, the list has included "Winning the Future," "We Can't Wait," "An America Built to Last," and "A Fair Shot." Surely "Forward," which sounds like a committee throwing its pencils in the air, won't be the end of the President's story in 2012.

The Romney-for-President slogan, "Believe in America," is so empty that it also served as John Kerry's, in 2004. …

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