Joe Biden's debate performance was a step in the right direction, but President Obama needs to further sharpen his message if he hopes to seal the deal with voters in these last few weeks. In the past, Team Obama has successfully painted Romney as an out-of-touch, far-right, flip-flopping corporate raider. Good stuff, but it all feels stale now. So what is the proper attack? Romney is looking and sounding awfully polished these days; he is an effective debater, an aggressive critic and a smooth salesman.
The "magic" attack uses all this against him.
I call it the magic attack because magic is what you need to believe in if you think Mitt Romney's numbers are going to add up. The premise is simple: Mitt Romney is a snake oil salesman who will tell you whatever you want to hear to make the sale. Note: this is different from simply calling him a liar. That charge doesn't resonate because it is flat, generic and overused. But to paint the image of a slippery salesman... this can stick because it uses Romney's charms against him. To execute, Obama simply needs to frame each Romney promise as the pitch of a shyster. Imagine Romney in a debate, riffing on the economy, and Obama responding like this:
"Wow. That sounds pretty good, doesn't it? With Gov. Romney, you get all the good stuff, and you don't have to pay for it. Think about that for a minute. He's saying don't worry about education, don't worry about Medicare, don't worry about all the parts of Obamacare that you like, don't worry about the tax deductions you like. You get to keep all the good stuff. Plus, they're gonna increase military spending $2 trillion and reduce everyone's taxes by 20 percent."
It's not enough to tear down Romney with numbers. Obama must ask voters to do a gut check.
"It all sounds great. But how do they pay for it? Closing tax loopholes. Which ones? They can't tell you yet. But don't worry. They promise it won't cost you a thing. Folks, when a politician promises you something for nothing, you should get suspicious. When he promises you everything for nothing, you should run."
Get the idea? The smoother Romney sounds, the more Obama can say, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." He can trap Romney by challenging him: "Where is the pain?" Romney will be forced to either reveal the sacrifices Americans will need to make (not likely), or he'll play right into the snake oil narrative.
When Romney harps on "jobs, jobs, jobs," President Obama can take this opportunity to call out the fallacy of the Republican's faith in the magic powers of the unfettered market, using the language of swindlers and magicians.
"Folks, the governor's a good salesman so he wants to make it sound like this is something new, but it's not. Reduce upper income taxes and remove regulations, and jobs will magically appear! Every Republican has been selling this same magic solution for 30 years."
Obama must then remind Americans that for most of those 30 years, we've actually been following their magic prescription -- with disastrous results. Remember George W. Bush? He lowered taxes, removed regulations, just like Romney is suggesting, and we had the most anemic eight years of job growth in recent history!
"Let's not fall for this scam again."
Now is a good time to mention that any attack like the one above must be followed by a pitch. This is what was missing from Biden's performance last Thursday. It's not enough to deride Romney's plans as malarkey -- Obama must convince voters that his path is going to lead us out of the wilderness, he needs to convince us that straying from that path means missing out on something great. And to contrast himself with Romney's slick salesmanship, he must sound grounded and practical. How about this:
"Here are the facts about my recovery. It's not flashy. It's not as fast as any of us have wanted it to be. But the numbers are real. Nine months after I took office, the unemployment rate hit bottom: 10.1 percent. We've gotten it down to 7.8 percent. Consumer confidence is up. The stock market is up. Housing prices are rising again... etc."
The important thing is that Obama must sell his recovery -- not just defend it. He needs to come across as the health food to Romney's snake oil. Here are a couple of points to hit:
• Sell the stimulus. Why? Because Romney will attack it even though it worked. Don't let him score easy points on this without fighting back. Remind voters that, although it has gotten a bad rap, most economists consider the stimulus a success. It was never intended to be a silver bullet, but it did save jobs and make significant investments in infrastructure with very little waste.
• Defend investments in green energy as a matter of national pride and competitiveness. This could be a huge weapon if Obama used it. China is spending more government money on green technology than any other country. And this is the technology of the future! Gov. Romney wants our government to sit this one out -- but that puts U.S. companies at a huge disadvantage. It is only through public/private partnerships -- the kind that have already been remarkably successful -- that we will be able to stay competitive in the next century.
• Remind voters that every accomplishment occurred despite Republican obstructionism. This is not the same as blaming Congress for failures. It's about saying, "Look what I've accomplished even though they've tried everything to stop me. Can you imagine what I could do if these guys actually got out of my way?"
Here are a few other arguments that Obama should make that can be tied back to his central magic thesis:
• Attack Romney's Massachusetts record. Strange things happened when Gov. Romney began fixing Massachusetts's budget. Suddenly marriage licenses that used to cost $4 now cost $50. Suddenly parking tickets were more expensive, gun and boat licenses were more expensive, public ice skating rinks were more expensive, law students had a new fee they had to pay if they wanted to take the bar exam... $400 million in new state fees total, and these fees hit lower- and middle-class citizens the hardest. Obama can use this to drive home the point that a Romney presidency will squeeze the middle class. "He may lower your taxes, but you're still going to have to pay one way or another." Oh, and about those taxes, according to The Tax Foundation, a conservative tax research organization, the tax burden for Massachusetts citizens grew 6.5 percent during Romney's time in office.
• Attack Romney's Five Point Plan. Point by point. Obama must do this in the debates if he is to win. The Obama team has put up a terrific fact-check on its website, so I won't go into each point here, but I will say that there is tremendous opportunity on the topics of education, the deficit, and small business to come back to the theme of Romney as a snake oil salesman.
• Remind voters of what did not cause the financial crisis. It may be news to some, but the financial crisis was not actually caused by big government. It was not caused by unions. It was not caused by Medicare or Social Security or education grants or green tech subsidies or PBS. You would think -- if you listened to the Republican convention -- that it was! But this is because Republicans have never liked government anything, they've never liked unions, or Medicare, or Social Security, or education funding, or green technology, or PBS. They have exploited our financial crisis as an excuse to attack all those things they've been attacking for 50 years. This is a bait and switch, and Obama must remind voters not to fall for it.
The main thing that needs to come through the president's closing argument is that his vision for the country is based upon sensible, practical solutions, while Romney's vision is nothing more than a smokescreen, a jumble of numbers and promises that don't add up. To do this, Obama's next two debate performances must be free of anything that sounds like a speech. Here's where he can learn a thing or two from Joe Biden's folksiness and direct approach. If Obama wants to show that Romney is a fake, then he needs to be at his most genuine and down to earth, unafraid to look incredulous and call out Romney's words as "malarkey" or "hocus pocus" or simply "bullsh-t." Whatever gets the job done.