National

Sep 6, 2012 10:30 AM by CBS News

After hope and change, can Obama make the sale?

In 2008, President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president by promising Americans hope and change -- as he put it four years ago, "a new politics for a new time."

As an incumbent president in 2012, he has to run on his record, not just his potential. And that means finding a way to connect to those 2008 voters who rallied around his pre-inauguration promises -- and in some cases are now disappointed that he did not live up to them.

Not even Mr. Obama would claim that he's brought wholesale positive change to Washington. If anything, he's presided over a time when the two major parties have grown more polarized. Few Americans look at Washington today and see, as he put it, a new politics for a new time. Most seem to see the bad old politics of the old days -- only worse. They look at the economy and they see improvement from the depths of the recession, but they don't see the sort of upward prosperity trend that they once saw as their birthright.

Mr. Obama's challenge on Thursday night, when he accepts the Democratic nomination for president, will be to make the case that he deserves four more years nonetheless. And he needs to do it in a way that exceeds the lofty expectations that come with his reputation as a public speaker but is grounded enough that Americans don't see his promises as empty.

"What he now has to propose is there's still hope for change. That it's not too late to invest in him for change. And that's a tough sell," said Jonathan Rauch, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Governance Studies.

According to a senior Obama campaign official, the president plans to "lay out a path forward" that will give Americans "a good idea of what a second term of an Obama presidency would mean."

The official said the speech will reflect the challenges both the president and the country have faced over the past four years, adding that "the American people are very understanding of that -- of the situation that he walked into, and what he did about it." The president plans to make the case that while Americans aren't necessarily where they want to be, they're better off than they were when Mr. Obama took office.

Paul Glastris, the former chief speechwriter for President Clinton who now edits the Washington Monthly, said Mr. Obama needs to talk specifically about his accomplishments over the past four years. He argued that Mr. Obama has been reticent to do so because it has been hard for the average American to see how those accomplishments have impacted his or her life.

"He's got to make the case that the achievements of the last four years are the basis for the policy actions for the next four years," said Glastris. "That the first four years are the foundation for a grand plan."

"You make a case for what you inherited, what you did, what the successes were, what you encountered along the way, and why the job isn't done," added Congressional scholar Thomas Mann. "But in the course of it, taking some real pride in what's been accomplished."

Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic insider lauded for his speechwriting abilities, also argued that Mr. Obama will benefit from getting more specific than his Republican opponent.

"Romney's economic plan [at the Republican National Convention] took up less time then talking about Neil Armstrong in his acceptance speech, and as much as I respect Neil Armstrong, that's not the right balance," he said.

While Romney has largely sought to make the election a referendum on Mr. Obama, sometimes avoiding specifics in the process, Democrats are seeking to turn the election into a choice between the two candidates. The implicit argument: You may not be entirely crazy about the president, but he's a whole lot better than the other guy.
"I think it's important for him to make a strong contrast," Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee said when asked how hard the president should criticize his rival. "He doesn't need to go after the guy personally, he needs to go after their records and their vision, and lay out that choice for people. That's completely appropriate, and I think the right thing to do."

"The new frame is forward vs. backward," he added.

Rauch said it's obvious that Mr. Obama's supporters are not going "to be as fired up" as last time around -- something Mr. Clinton seemed to acknowledge when he said in an interview Wednesday, "I keep reading all this stuff about the enthusiasm gap and all that. I get that. The real world's hard. It's harder to do than to talk."

"So the question," Rauch continued, "is can you get enough swing voters out to the polls to do the job for you? And that's got to be a combination of scaring people about Romney/Ryan, which they're going to do plenty of, and some sort of economic message about stay the course, which is really hard because people necessarily don't like this course."

Mr. Obama's recent rhetoric sounds much different than what Americans heard four hears ago. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist, said he has little reason to try to make the hope and change argument once again.

"It wouldn't be hope and change at all," she said of the president's message. "We are the change. We don't want the change. And I think hope is something that you do when you don't know the person's record."

Asked what messages poll best for Democrats this year, she pointed to two: "keep moving forward" and "real results for your family."

Mr. Obama will deliver his remarks in the Time Warner Center Arena, not the much larger Bank of America Stadium, because weather concerns prompted Democrats to move the speech indoors. His campaign says he plans to pick up on the themes Mr. Clinton hit in his speech here Wednesday, when Mr. Clinton cast the election as a choice between Romney's "on-your-own, winner-take-all" philosophy and Mr. Obama's vision of a "we're-all-in-this-together society." Mr. Clinton, like many of the Democratic speakers, also engaged in what Glastris called "extending the time horizon" -- making the case that four years just isn't enough for Mr. Obama to make things better in light of the difficult situation he walked into.

Glastris added that their argument isn't just about the next four years.

"People have lowered their expectations about their own lives. We all kinda get it," he said. "'We've downgraded. But we want to think the downgrading was for a good purpose. If we think our sacrifices are for a larger cause -- that our kids are going to get a payback in the end -- that's how he's got to appeal to people."

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