What else ya got?
That seems to be the main question voters have for President Obama as he launches his re-election campaign in earnest.
Everybody knows what Obama's top priorities were in his first term: enact healthcare reform, beat back the recession, rein in reckless banks better protect consumers. Whether he accomplished those missions is a mixed verdict. Obamacare still faces a key Supreme Court challenge and for the most part won't go into effect until 2014. Obama's stimulus measures helped the economy heal, but fell far short of Obama's own expectations. It's hard to tell if the banks are behaving better, and many consumers feel worse off than they did four years ago, regardless of how much the government has done to protect them.
Obama's Republican opponent will doubtless attack those efforts, and Obama will defend them, throughout the months leading up to Election Day. But Obama needs to look forward, not back, and develop a fresh agenda if he wants voters to grant him a second term. So far, Obama has outlined bits and pieces of his future plans, such as the "fairness" theme he laid out in a December speech. But nothing has really stuck. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 54 percent of independent voters—the ones likely to determine who wins in November--said they don't know what Obama wants to accomplish in a second term. In Gallup polls, Obama's approval rating among independents has drifted down from a high of 66 percent in 2009 to just 42 percent today.
Obama and his re-election team surely know all that, and there's no doubt they'll craft a fresh plan meant to assuage doubters. But Obama has missed the mark before on issues voters care most about, such as jobs, the national debt, fading prosperity, and the future of Medicare and Social Security. Here are three areas where Obama needs to refine his vision and give voters some new ideas to get excited about.
Convincing ways to create jobs. Obama has a jobs plan, it just hasn't gotten much traction with … anybody, really. Last September, in the wake of the debt-ceiling fiasco, Obama announced his big plan to spend nearly $450 billion to hire teachers, cops, and firefighters and enact some other traditional stimulus measures, which he said would save or create thousands of new jobs. If you've forgotten about that, it's because the plan had no chance of getting passed in Congress, where most Republicans and some Democrats have become leery of flushing more taxpayer money out into a cold, uncaring economy.
That hasn't stopped Obama from stumping for his plan, as if millions of supporters will shut down their websites in a national act of solidarity and persuade Congress to change its mind. In his December speech, which aides billed as a blueprint for his campaign platform, Obama expanded on the idea, saying, "We have always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed."
Well, maybe. But Obama's out of step with voters on this, because confidence in both government and big business has crashed over the last few years. So he's hanging his whole jobs plan on two institutions that a majority of voters don't trust or even view as capable of helping them.
To be fair, there's probably not much more that Washington--in its current form, under any president--can do to boost the economy. But voters might be receptive to an ambitious plan to revamp the whole interface between government and business, which might include lower corporate taxes, strong incentives to draw more global companies to the United States, regulatory streamlining, sensible immigration reform, a way to roll back the influence of corporate money in politics, aggressive worker retraining, and, most importantly, metrics and guarantees assuring that ordinary workers will benefit. Call it America's Back-to-Business agenda.
Sure, it would be grandiose and probably get shredded in the usual legislative dealmaking process. But Obama could make that Congress's problem, not his, and besides, he's not selling a plan, he's selling a vision. And his needs to be refreshed.
A believeable debt-cutting plan. Obama has backed into this issue too, ignoring the well-regarded work of his own debt-reduction panel and waiting until last September—again, after the ridiculous debt-ceiling smackdown--to offer a his own plan. Obama's "Living Within Our Means" blueprint is a credible effort to cut the debt by $4.4 trillion over 10 years, relying on spending cuts for about two thirds of the reduction and tax hikes for one third. But Obama hardly ever mentions this plan, and he may even doubt his own seriousness because he took a pass on several measures most economists think will be essential to fixing the government's finances, including major reforms to Medicare and middle-class tax hikes.
No candidate is likely to get re-elected by calling for tax hikes and benefit cuts, which is probably why Obama is speaking softly on this. And fixing the debt isn't as important right now as boosting growth and creating jobs. But voters care a lot about Washington's runaway spending, partly because it contributes to general worries about the future and the sustainability of living standards. Voters also seem to be catching on to the idea that most Americans will need to make some sacrifices in the future to fix this problem.
Obama has an opening to get ahead of his Republican opponent on the debt, because Mitt Romney and the other Republican candidates have all proposed tax cuts that would make the debt problem worse, not better. A credible debt plan won't clinch the election for any candidate, but it will show leadership on a problem that intelligent voters—including many independents—know can't be ignored for much longer.
A win-win approach to taxes. One of Obama's strongest re-election themes so far is the need to tax the wealthy more as a way to finance stimulus measures and continued low taxes that would mainly benefit the middle and working class. These sorts of new taxes may be inevitable, and a divide-and-conquer strategy on taxes might carry the day with enough voters to push Obama over the top in November.
But this isn't really what Americans want to hear, because it would just move money around while perpetuating a status quo that many people are disgusted with. It's almost accepted wisdom at this point that the tax system is a jury-rigged mess that literally changes from month to month and favors those who can afford expensive tax advisers to figure out all the loopholes. Layering more new rules on top of that will further complicate the tax code, not simplify it. Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan may have been a bit loopy, but Cain identified something Americans desperately want: simplicity and predictability.
The U.S. tax code goes through cycles in which it is reformed and simplified, then doctored by special interests until it's so distorted that another round of simplification is required. We're getting close to that point now. Making the tax code more efficient is one of the few ways to boost the economy in ways that benefit mostly everybody, without creating big new classes of winners and losers. Obama's current strategy might make some people better off, but a lot of others need convincing. He'll get back to you on that.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success , to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman