09/06/2012 02:27 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

Mr. President, Lay Out the Plan

This Democratic convention has set the table for a rousing finish tonight by Vice President Biden and President Obama. The myth-making of the Republican convention has been convincingly debunked by the best debunker and policy teacher of all time, Bill Clinton. Their policy ideas have been exposed as the failed policies of the past. The achievements of Obama's first term have been celebrated, as they should have been: Lily Ledbetter kicked ass; Obamacare has been embraced and argued for as it should have been; Elizabeth Warren was spectacular in talking about the central importance of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Most importantly, Democrats have made the arguments they needed to about the fundamental difference in values between the two parties, from Michelle Obama's powerful, passionate speech about her husband's values to Julian Castro's beautiful summary of the difference between the two parties' approach: "Of all the fictions we heard in Tampa last week, the one I find most troubling is this: If we all just go our own way, our nation will be stronger for it. If we sever the threads that connect us, the only people that will go far are those who are already ahead." Or as Deval Patrick said about kids in a poor school: "But those Orchard Gardens kids should not be left on their own. Those children are America's children, too, yours and mine. And among them are the future scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, engineers, laborers and civic leaders we desperately need. For this country to rise, they must rise... "

The three featured speakers last night completely delivered. Sandra Fluke showed guts, grit, and grace as she movingly laid out the choices we face for our country in this election. Elizabeth Warren made the case better than anyone else could that what we need for our economy is a level playing field and a cop on the beat. (My only problem with Elizabeth's speech was that she didn't take nearly enough credit for getting the CFPB passed, because it never would have happened without her toughness and negotiating skills, but I guess that would have been tacky.) And Bill Clinton, the old lion, he roared. No one is better than Clinton at talking policy, common sense, and values with the American people. As he does so well, he explained policy ideas in a way that seems simple and makes common sense, but he didn't talk down to people. His memorable lines -- such as the one about arithmetic, and the one about the Republican argument being that we messed things up really bad but Obama didn't fix it fast enough so put us back in charge -- are so funny and sum things up so well that they will be repeated over and over by Democrats everywhere until election day. There's no one else like him, and never will be.

Now that the table is set, Joe Biden and Barack Obama need to finish the meal. They need to convince voters that there is a way out of the constant economic stress and hardship of the last dozen years, that there is a way forward to rebuilding and expanding the great American middle class over the long term. Americans are fearful of the economic future for themselves and their families, and Obama needs to show them clearly and convincingly that he has a plan to get them to the other side of these troubled waters. They need to do what Clinton and Elizabeth Warren did: explain to the American people in down to earth language what the policy choices in front of the nature are.

News accounts, as well as my own private conversations with the Obama team, reflect mixed feelings over the nature of tonight's presidential speech in terms of how big it should be.

Stanley Greenberg, a pollster who helped develop Mr. Clinton's "It's the economy, stupid" campaign in 1992, said, "People want to know the plan," adding that Mr. Obama has "to talk about moving America to a place where the middle class can prosper."

But analysts say Mr. Obama must be careful about how he talks about investments, because voters understand that the federal government is broke and are therefore wary of promises. "If you stand up and say, 'Here are all the things we're going to spend money on,' you risk getting yourself into a big argument you don't want to have," said Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Bernstein's line reflects the thinking of many Democratic strategists, including ones I have been talking with in Senate and congressional level campaigns as well: that if Democrats think too big about our economic problems, they will be burned by voters' worries about new government spending programs. I understand the hesitation, as swing voters are very sensitive to government deficit fears and don't have faith in government spending programs as a way to get the economy going again. But I fundamentally side with Greenberg on this issue, because I see in focus groups and polls, and the hundreds of conversations I've had with non-political people around the country in cafes and airports and barber shops and pizza joints, that people's anxiety over the big long term problems of our economy and the middle class has created a deep hunger for political leaders to step forward with a serious plan to really change things. People are tired of short term solutions that don't ever seem to get at the big problems, and trumped up short term political "crises" that are never about the main things they care about.

Given the economic frustrations of the last dozen years, voters want to hear that someone has a real plan, a serious well-thought through plan, a plan that goes beyond the usual slogans and basic electioneering, to finally make the middle class in this country start growing and prospering again.

As to the concern of Bernstein and others in the party worried about the president just sounding like another tax and spend Democrat, I would argue that while of course investing in the future -- schools, roads, bridges, R&D -- must be part of what we are for, that this kind of bigger plan definitely should not only be about what we are going to be spending money on -- it should be about taking on the big special interests that are hurting our economy.

For one thing, such a plan should have cutting the real government waste that is there in federal contracting, in military spending, in subsidies to oil companies and agribusiness giants. It should also include real savings in health care spending by, for example, having Medicare negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and having a public option that forces insurers to compete. If I were writing this economic plan it would include breaking up the biggest banks and re-instituting Glass-Steagall so that we end Too Big To Fail banks and begin to stabilize our financial system again; being tougher about taking China on re trade and currency issues; reworking trade deals to actually start benefitting workers; a public-private infrastructure bank; vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws so that big companies cannot run roughshod over small business; changing the way the federal government does procurement and contracting to benefit businesses that pay better wages; forcing the biggest banks to write down underwater mortgages so that those homeowners can stay in their homes and have more money to spend in their local communities; getting wages back on an upward path again by raising the minimum wage and making it easier for workers to organize.

OK, I'm going to admit that President Obama will not be proposing all those things tonight, although maybe he'll include a few. But my point is that there are a great many economic policies that strengthen the middle class, take on wealthy special interests, and help rebuild our economy for the long run that don't involve more federal spending. The president should lay out big, bold ideas tonight, ideas that actually put us on a real course to building a strong economic engine with enough horsepower to move us down the track in the right direction.

The first two nights of this convention have been the best pair of opening nights I have ever seen. Now the vice president and president need to give the American people the assurance that they have a serious long term plan to take us out of these tough economic times. They need to have the confidence in the American people to explain what they are for and why. It would be a welcome contrast to their opponents' substance-free convention. But most importantly, it will give voters the confidence that Obama has a path out of the economic wilderness, and that this country's middle class can grow and become prosperous again, from the bottom up.