The malaise is palpable, from both sides. Mitt Romney is clearly a consolation prize to every single member of the GOP except twenty or so CEOs, while for many on the other side the almost impossible magic of electing a young, charismatic black man as leader of the free world has inexorably given way to a low-grade depression, both fiscal and psychic. The cure to what ails the electorate is not more policy but policy across an array of urgent middle-class issues all in the service of creating and enforcing an irresistibly infectious and uplifting narrative.
Facts don't excite voters, stories do. If one could teach us to dream again, we'll follow them anywhere. That's why somebody needs to tell us and keep telling us from now to November, "It's going to get better. I see it! I see the steps that get us back up there in the sky from down here in this cold, sucking mud."
The Obama campaign's resistance to providing a cohesive, easily digestible message has famously plagued the administration's first term and plagues it still. Infrastructure investment, aid to states and health care reform, for example, could easily have been woven together into a tapestry that explained how Obama planned to first save the nation from Bush's recession and then prepare it for a glorious renaissance through a balance of short-term stimulus (roads and bridges) and long-term debt reduction (Medicare reform). As Drew Westen pointed out early and often, the Obama administration went out of its way to not blame its predecessor for the recession until the midterms when it was too late. Though 68 percent of Americans still blame George Bush, 52 percent blame the current president for our rut. Obama and surrogates should have started shouting, "unpaid wars," and "unpaid tax cuts to the wealthy" from the day after inauguration and never shut up.
The administration's messaging problems are ironic since they won the presidency with the help of just two words, hope and change. The message this time could be just as simple, just as compelling. As someone whose only job has been working with words, might I humbly suggest one to define Obama's campaign this time:
If they would ask me, I'd tell the administration to stamp "Forward" on every piece of campaign literature they print. The American version of Britain's World War II slogan, "Keep Calm and Carry On," "Forward" pairs well with the "No Drama Obama" Americans have come to know as a leader. It reminds them that they are moving forward, albeit much too slowly, and that the president is their best hope continuing the momentum. It also defines the president favorably against Romney, who can be framed as hopelessly retrograde. ("I mean, c'mon," they could say. "We've seen the movie Romney's starring in before. It's called, Bush III: Back to No Future.")
A simple, hopeful message is so key to the president's reelection because it needs to forcefully counterbalance the extreme right's incessantly focused storyline that America is so lost, so hopeless and resistant to change that now it's every person for him or herself. The shocking success of their cynicism has poisoned even those diametrically opposed to them.
Americans of most persuasions used to be able to argue around a shared center, like two evenly matched rugby teams locking horns in a scrum. Today, elements of the extreme right have so infected the GOP that it proudly advocates sabotaging our nation's economy for its own political gain. From aid to the states to help for the unemployed to the continued economic brinksmanship around our nation's debt-ceiling, no elected officials in our history have so cavalierly toyed with the fundamentals of our economy. As Ezra Klein wrote earlier this month in an important piece, "The Keynesian Case for Romney," the current GOP's unmistakable message today is, "vote for us or the recovery gets it."
Those that feel betrayed by Obama's polished, emotional delivery last time need to be convinced that this election is a cause and the president is not just their leader but their partner. Furthering that end, we all know that if Democrats don't hold onto the Senate and retake the House, or at the least cut the House GOP majority enough to scare them into stopping their ongoing actions, then an Obama reelection won't be any different from the bilious paralysis we're suffering through currently.
Without the hope that Obama will have not only the will, but the tools to fundamentally change Washington in his next term, a vote for Romney is not an illogical choice for an independent voter. Yes, that voter will usher in a lot of things they either don't care about or oppose, but as Klein points out, as things stand today, gridlock would almost certainly be eased.
I would urge the president to think bigger than the swing states and electoral math, to dream again of profound change. Free of ever having to campaign again, Obama can spend the next four years, if he has help in a new Congress, on paving a road to a bright American future.
That's a road I think a lot of us would still like to travel down. Mr. President, show us the way.
This story originally appeared in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.
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