Despite the praise being heaped on the president for not sleepwalking through the debate last night, one thing was -- yet again -- conspicuously absent: A single reference to his stimulus program, the most significant economic legislation of the last 50 years.
President Obama's refusal to use his stimulus program as the engine of his re-election campaign is comparable -- in its strategic incompetence and abject failure to construct a compelling narrative around it -- to Al Gore's stubborn resistance to use Bill Clinton in 2000. The results may be equally catastrophic.
The term "stimulus" wasn't used a single time in the second presidential debate. Or the first one. Obama, Plouffe and Axelrod are clearly convinced the stimulus is political kryptonite. They've surrendered to the Republican framing -- that it is an $800 billion-dollar failure, an historic boondoggle, a socialist takeover of government, a squandering of dough on chimerical green jobs, literally tilting at windmills.
These "Chicago guys" who'd do anything -- as Welch put it in his infamous Tweet -- have been intimidated into becoming stimulus-shy. The president's website doesn't celebrate the stimulus plan as part of his election rationale. It's barely even there. Search "TARP" and the term doesn't come up. Search "stimulus" and you get some random hits. It's a mark of capitulation, even though a credible poll of economists, as reported in the Washington Post, found that four out of five economists believe it created jobs.
Of course, public skepticism about the stimulus was there at the beginning. A June 2010 poll from Pew found that 60 percent of those asked believed the stimulus hadn't helped the economy, versus 33 percent who did. The very low "Don't Know" number -- 7 percent -- reminds us how deep and strongly held that impression is.
This was the warning sign for the president, and the fall elections of 2010, and his self-proclaimed "shellacking," reinforced it.
From the beginning, Obama failed to explain the program in an accessible, concrete narrative that provided a counterweight to the Republican framing, which tapped into the emotionally available construct of government waste and inefficiency. I've been griping about this since February 2009 when I wrote a piece for the Daily Beast, which laid into Obama for not making the stimulus sexy. Nothing has changed. Do you hear any Democrats who voted for the stimulus, talking about it when they should be crowing on the campaign trail? It's a measure of Republican marketing brilliance and shocking Democratic ineptitude.
But it's not too late to reframe the stimulus and make it sing in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado and other state where the election hangs in the balance -- largely based on the question of which candidate is better equipped to bring jobs and grow the economy. The president needs to say, in a full-throated and gutsy way, that the stimulus created more jobs in a year than Romney did in his entire career at Bain.
In the last weeks of the campaign they need to make the stimulus the beating heart of the president's message, the pump of the stump speech, repeated ad and advertising nauseam. It's a simple story. When I took office, we are inches from a Great Depression -- all of that due to Republican incompetence.
The Economist points out in their review of Michael Grunewald's The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era that "in the last quarter of 2008, the final three months of the Bush era, the American economy contracted by an astonishing 8.9 percent. By early 2009 job losses hit 800,000 a month."
I think America was largely in denial then; we don't remember, or have repressed just how desperate the situation was. And the president has failed to bring back those dark days with power and passion. He didn't do it last night, either. What he says is "I inherited a mess." He should never, ever use that casual term. A mess is what happens when Sasha and Malia have their girlfriends over to the Lincoln bedroom for a sleepover.
Put together a commercial that shows the stock market collapse, the tragic faces of the millions of lost jobs -- and the children of the newly unemployed -- the growing panic that we were rushing towards a depression, towards the 1930s and incalculable suffering. Evening in America, to reverse Reagan. Then describe the overwhelming conclusion of Democratic and Republican economists -- including many who worked for Reagan and Bush -- that the stimulus worked.
And contrast all that with the refusal of the Republican Congress to go along with it. Why? Because damaging the new president -- and new is critical framing language, it ignites all the neural networks about the promise of hope and change -- was more important than lifting the country up. Remind people that the ugly partisanship they hate and the refusal to compromise was the Republican strategy from day one.
The Economist supports that narrative, writing that Grunwald "lays out in shocking detail how the Republican leadership decided early and wholeheartedly not to co-operate with the new president" and notes the "degree of cynicism" that was involved.
The president prevented economic Armageddon in the first month of his administration. (End-of-days language works with the right.) It was heroic. It's the reason we've gained jobs for 31 straight months. It's why we can afford our iPhone 5s and why the housing market is starting to turn around and why many of the companies that Bain Capital help fund, are still around today.
The inability of the Obama team to turn this rescue of the economy into an emotional powerful, coherent and compelling political narrative is one of the biggest strategic failures of the last 50 years. It makes Jimmy Carter's "malaise speech" -- and of course we know he never said this words -- look like FDR's day of infamy moment or Churchill's "blood sweat and tears."
It remains to be seen whether the president and his advisors -- a cautious bunch -- have the courage to embrace his success and turn the program that stimulated the economy into one that can rescue his campaign.