A week or so ago, Financial Times columnist Ed Luce wrote a column that encapsulated the smart conventional wisdom in Washington. President Obama, said Luce, needed to find a “theme” upon which to base his re-election campaign.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in a follow-on blog post, seconded the motion. As did half of big-shot Washington, off the record, at countless “business lunches” and dinner parties.
Always sensitive to media/insider critiques, Team Obama yesterday released a video — seven minutes long — that outlines the case for the president’s re-election. The “theme,” if you want to call it that, is “Forward.” “Forward” replaces “Winning the Future” and “An America Built To Last” — two previous “thematic” iterations — as Team Obama’s over-arching message.
The purpose of “Forward” is to frame the election choice; backward-looking Neanderthals (Republicans) against the modern and magnificent Obama.
What’s absent from the video specifically and the Obama campaign generally is any clear plan for re-igniting economic growth.
The “Forward” video suggests government spending (“stimulus”), government intervention (auto bailout), and protecting entitlement programs has done and will continue to do the trick. The rest of it will somehow take care of itself.
In the real world, people are looking for a spark, an economic engine with a lot of horsepower. Every economic boom has its locomotive(s). The 1980s were powered by technology and defense spending, the 1990s by Silicon Valley and a re-invested “peace dividend,” the 2000s by national security spending, new technologies and housing/finance.
The next great boom will be powered (in this case quite literally) by the technological revolution that is happening, right now, in America’s energy industry. New extractive technologies — “fracking” being the most discussed — will make us richer than we ever imagined possible. Energy genomics — biology doing for energy what it did for agriculture — will make us richer still.
About this, Team Obama has nothing to say, in large measure because it has spent much of the last three years trying to forestall the technological revolution that is transforming the energy business here in North America and around the world. Clinging to its dream of a green energy future, Team Obama sees brown energy not as a locomotive, but as a threat.
Therein lies Mitt Romney’s opportunity. If he can make the case that a Romney Administration would shift American energy policy away from Team Obama’s naïve and sometimes embarrassing (Solyndra) attachment to green power and do everything in its power to accelerate brown power (natural gas, basically), then he will own the high ground on economic growth. Own the issue of economic growth and the electoral betting line turns abruptly against the president.
The metaphor for the “green/brown” choice is the Keystone energy pipeline, which the Obama Administration bungled so badly and in so many ways that the Romney campaign could profitably talk about nothing else for the next five months and probably still not exhaust the subject matter.
Keystone is never mentioned in “Forward.” No doubt it tested badly. Romney’s task is to make it central to the “narrative” of the campaign. Voters believe that cheaper energy results in more rapid and robust economic growth. Romney doesn’t have to make that sale. He just needs to convince voters that he’s serious about enabling and accelerating the brown energy revolution. If he can do that, then Pennsylvania (for instance) is a toss-up. And if Pennsylvania is a toss-up, then Romney will win.