In a recent post I outlined the President's challenge in his Convention speech thus:
The crises the President inherited are not his fault. It is disgusting to hear Paul Ryan and others blame the President for every problem in the United States. And despite Mitt Romney's impressive past history, his willingness to change his positions regularly and disavow past achievements raises serious questions about his own ability to lead. And yet, it is undeniable that after three years, the financial crisis is still with us and the political crisis is worse than ever. At some point, the President must take responsibility for his failure to address these crises and offer hope that he has a plan to address them in the future. That is the President's challenge during his convention speech next week. To somehow try to answer the criticism that after three years, we still don't know what it is that President Obama believes in and how he wants to respond to the financial and political crisis that he inherited.
Obama did make it clear that he and Mitt Romney offer two fundamentally different approaches to politics and to American life. The Republicans and Democrats do represent different versions of what it means to be Americans in the 21st century. There is a choice of values.
What the President did not do, however, is to show us that he understands the depth of the crisis we continue to struggle through or that American life as we have known it is changing radically. Nor therefore did he outline his vision of where he wants it to go. Eliot Spitzer seems to get this right:
Through this haze, however, a fundamental choice on values and policy did emerge—a choice clarified by the brilliance of Bill Clinton in his deconstruction of the Republican agenda and praise for Present Obama has done. Yet the reality of today's job numbers—only 96,000 net new jobs created and a work force participation rate of 63.5 percent, the lowest in 30 years—reaffirms what we already know: We are still in a serious crisis.
All of which is what left me feeling a bit empty after the president's speech: What exactly is the agenda for the next four years? His priorities are surely better than those of the Republicans. And give him credit: He even spoke directly about global warming. But it is not clear to me that he is ready to push for the genuine control of health care costs that might ensure that the government can afford the investments in the areas that most need it: education, infrastructure, basic R&D, and protection of the safety net for the poor.
The President may win simply because his values are understood to be better than Mitt Romney's and the Republican Party's. He at least understands that political life and patriotism demand that we see ourselves as part of a common project, not simply as a collection of radically atomized individuals. But in an individualistic age, in which we live, people need to believe in grand projects if they are to feel part of something bigger than themselves. The President continues to fail to provide such a narrative. In other words, he is not making the case that the President can and does Matter.