Obama Campaigns Against Washington

Can Obama run on change — again? And can he force Romney to talk about anything other than the economy?

Obama at Boston’s Symphony Hall Monday. Carolyn Kaster / AP

BOSTON — Four years after he tapped into a deep longing for change, President Obama is shifting back to the message that got him elected, running against Washington Gridlock and promising that his re-election can “break the stalemate” that has at times paralyzed the government over which he presides.

Obama first tested this new messagae in Cleveland earlier this month, but he developed it fully Monday during campaign stops in New Hampshre and Massaschusetts, where he stopped looking back to make the case for his accomplishments, and moved away from dwelling in te problems of the present. Instead, Obama looked to the lame duck Congressional session this fall and beyond,
taking a sledgehammer to Washington, the town his party controlled for his first two years in office.

“What’s holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different visions of which direction we should go,” Obama told supporters, laying out the choice lawmakers will face in “taxmaggedon” — the extension of the Bush tax cuts and the host of other spending and revenue bills that Congress must take up by the end of the year.

“The next President and the next Congress will face a set of decisions — on the economy, on deficits, on taxes -– that will have a profound impact not only on the country we live in today, but the country that we pass on to our kids,” Obama said at a campaign speech at a Durham, Hew Hampshire high school. Outlining Mitt Romney’s economic vision, Obama brought the crowd to booing his opponents plan to return to “top-down” economic policies, and opposition to tax increases on the wealthy.

In Durham and then again at Boston Symphony Hall fundraiser, Obama also increasingly billed the election as a choice — a referendum — on a host of non-economic issues that Republicans would either reverse or stay still on when the country has to move “forward.”

As Obama would have it, the election is a choice between ending the Afghanistan war or keeping troops there indefinitely; between ensuring access to contraception and funding Planned Parenthood or not; and between maintaining tuition assistance programs or gutting them.

“That’s up to you,” Obama said repeatedly after laying out each option to rousing applause from donors and supporters.

“You can decide whether we keep our brave men and women in Afghanistan indefinitely, like Mr. Romney wants to do, or whether we stick to the timeline that I’ve set to finally bring our troops home — That’s up to you,” Obama said in Boston as the crowd rose to their feet. “You can decide that instead of restricting access to birth control or defunding Planned Parenthood, we should make sure that in this country, women control their own health care choices — That’s up to you. You can decide whether we keep Wall Street reform; whether ending taxpayer bailouts for Wall Street banks was the right thing to do; whether preventing insurance companies from discriminating against people who are sick is the right thing to do; whether over 3 million young people being able to stay on their parent’s health insurance plan is the right thing to do. “

While Obama’s rhetoric may tap into what seems to be permanent, and deepening, discontent with Washington, he faces a gap between his promises of change and the frozen politics of the capital. There is little — if any — reason to expect that his re-election will catalyze the kind of national unity that elude him in 2008. His message of ending partisan gridlock, a deeply appealing promise that carried both him and George W. Bush before him to office, may sound appealing — but it may also be unrealistic when the congressional balance of power shows no signs of shifting in his favor.

Obama’s new tack also underscores a challenge he has yet to master: Talking about the economy. The message is part of a strategy to keep the debate on issues Mitt Romney would rather not talk about — like foreign policy, women’s health, and corporate regulations, but it has few answers for voters concerned about a weak economic recovery.

“The President has been clear – in November, Americans will have the opportunity to break the stalemate between two economic visions for how to create jobs and grow our economy: one that builds the economy from the middle class out by investing in education and spurring innovation, and the other that rewards those at the top with special breaks and strips oversight from banks and polluters,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt told BuzzFeed. “It’s not that Mitt Romney and Congressional Republicans don’t have an economic vision – they do – the same one that allowed a few people to do extremely well but crashed the economy and threatened the security of the middle class.”

The Romney campaign dismisses the new approach as a diversion. Romney spokesman Ryan Williams called the Washington attacks a “ridiculous political stunt,” noting Obama had “free reign during his first two years in office to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in wasted stimulus spending and do whatever else he wanted.”

The Romney campaign’s own mirror-image strategy is to refuse to talk about anything other than the economy, a plan put on awkward display Monday, when spokesman Rick Gorka simply refused to address the issue of the day — the Supreme Court striking down part of the controversial Arizona immigration law SB 1070.

The Obama campaign sees Romney’s well-documented avoidance on these non-economic issues not just as a character flaw, but also easy political fodder. By engaging on issues Romney would rather not talk about, the Obama campaign hopes to precipitate more “Gorka moments,” an Obama aide said, where the candidate or his spokespeople nervously try to avoid engaging on the issues.

Of the Obama campaign’s efforts to distract Romney from his all-economy, all-the-time message, Williams said they wouldn’t be successful.

“We’ve always talked about the economy, and we’re going to keep talking about the economy. Nothing is going to change that,” he said.

The dueling strategies seem to set the stage for an election decided not by who wins the argument, but by who decides what the candidates are arguing about.

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