Friday I posted a detailed outline of the economic campaign speech President Obama gave in Cleveland. Today I’ll explain five things he did in the speech. One speech isn’t that important, but I’ll be watching over the next five months to see which of these develop into campaign themes.

1. President Obama blames Republican theory for the financial crisis, recession, and slow recovery and links Governor Romney’s policies to that “failed experiment.”

In the past President Obama has harped on the problems he “inherited” and blamed President Bush for the financial crisis, ensuing recession, and even the slow recovery. Similarly, the Obama campaign is attacking Governor Romney’s experience and record, both at Bain and as Governor.

In this speech he instead attacks “Republican theories” and “the failed experiment” of the previous decade. He links Governor Romney to those policies and

[what he argues is] the result. This is a broader attack on policies, ideas, and a small(er) government policy philosophy. It allows President Obama to attack Governor Romney for policies Romney proposes, as well as for policies Romney has not proposed but were implemented during the Bush Administration, and also those being proposed by any Congressional Republican. By bundling all these into “Republican theories” he has a wider range of targets.

President Obama’s flawed syllogism works like this:

  1. Romney policy X was tried during the Bush Administration. It is part of a failed Republican theory.
  2. Republican theory caused the financial crisis, recession, and slow recovery.
  3. Governor Romney’s policy on X may cause a repeat of the financial crisis and recession.
When Governor Romney and Republicans argue “Obama policies have failed,” this is the Obama answer: “We tried your failed theory last decade. Not only did it not work, look at the mess it put us in.”

2. President Obama shifts his message from anti-rich to pro-middle class.

President Obama’s last big economic speech was December 6th in Osawatomie, Kansas. In that speech and his State of the Union address he defined inequality, in particular the more rapid income growth of the rich, as the top economic policy problem. The rich are getting richer, he argued, that’s a big problem, and it’s hurting the middle class in a bunch of ways. Those speeches was heavy on the anti-rich rhetoric.

The rich get only brief mentions in the Cleveland speech. Now the President is framing the choice as “Whose plan will help the middle class more?” He refers to the rich only when he frames Governor Romney’s policies. I want to help the middle class, he argues, while Governor Romney wants to help his rich friends.

It is not news to label a Republican candidate as wanting to help the rich, nor for a politician to tailor his message to helping the middle class. It is news when the President’s top policy priority has almost vanished from his message six months later.

3. He barely mentions deficits & debt, entitlement spending, European financial crisis, trade, Affordable Care Act, stimulus, and Dodd/Frank.

What he did not highlight is important. President Obama is campaigning on hiring more teachers and cops, building better solar panels, and fixing more potholes.  Three of those four are important policy priorities for a mayor. If he doesn’t talk about the biggest economic problems the Nation faces and doesn’t talk much about his policy accomplishments so far, he is leaving a lot of subject matter off the table.

4. He tests a tagline: “Education. Energy. Innovation. Investment.”

In 1996 President Clinton and Democrats bludgeoned Bob Dole and Republicans with a six word mantra: “Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment.” Democrats were not saying what they would do with those subject, just signaling their policy priorities to voters. It worked.

President Obama may be testing his own tagline with these four words from the Cleveland speech:

Education. Energy. Innovation. Investment.

If that exact phrase starts popping up in the President’s messaging, then Republicans better watch out. It worked before.

5. He frames the Romney option as a radical shrinking of government and the Obama option as a continuation of the historic practice of a mixed economy.

It appears President Obama wants to frame this choice across multiple dimensions:

Romney Obama
radical change safe, incremental changes
shrink government to near zero maintain government with a few small expansions in needed areas
Wild West balance of government and markets


This framing and the entire speech are aimed at a centrist audience. Both dimensions are important: he is describing himself as an incrementalalist and his opponent as part of a group of radicals who will destroy government and cause grave economic harm. If President Obama’s past and planned future expansions of government are seen as radical, or if Republican policies are seen as either incremental or a return to an acceptable pre-Obama state, then the President’s framing will fail.