In football, a team with the lead late in the game tends to go conservative, using the "prevent defense." But as any fan knows, the only thing it prevents is victory.
President Obama must be careful about playing prevent defense this election season. Conservative play -- or politics -- won't serve him or the country well.
In a recent open memo to the Obama re-election campaign, senior Democratic political strategist James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg pointed out what many voters have known for a long time: People want reassurance -- not about the present, but the future. And that reassurance comes from spelling out policies that emerge from the stories of our struggles, struggles caused by the lingering effects of Republican governance.
There's nothing magical in all this. Carville and Greenberg found that voters (in focus groups held in key battle ground states) are "struggling to pay for everyday items and racking up student debt. Regardless of their education or economic status, these folks haven't seen signs of an economic recovery and don't expect to see one anytime soon."
Yet four factors favor President Obama -- if he's willing to play aggressively and get off defense. Based on the president's recent speech at Cuyahoga Community College, this seems to be his game plan.
The first is history. Voters have notoriously short memories -- but they are easily reminded about the deep truths of history. So before President Obama can implement his vision for the future, he has to remind everyone how we got in this mess in the first place.
The collapse of the housing market and the financial industry stemmed from previous administrations, specifically Bush-era policies that emphasized deregulation. The Bush-era tax cuts are also responsible for a portion of the national debt draining critical revenues from the nation's economy.
So President Obama must remind the voters of where we were, what we faced and the steps he took to stop the hemorrhaging of 750,000 jobs per month. Saving the auto industry alone should help validate his presidency: Had that collapsed, who could calculate the domino effect on the country? President Obama saved the auto industry by forging cooperation between labor, business big and small, and government. This must be trumpeted because it's an example of what President Truman pointed out: that "prosperity comes from cooperation."
The second factor follows from the first: Those in Carville and Greenberg's focus groups described GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as "rich, out of touch and in the pocket of Wall Street and big finance." One voter expressed outrage at the millions Romney hides in an offshore account, while millions of people struggle to pay grocery bills.
President Obama needs to ask: Why does the Republican Congress refuse to allow homeowners to renegotiate their loans? Why does it oppose every measure meant to help struggling families keep the lights on and food on the table? Why must Congress hold up a key transportation bill? Why are "cooperation" and "compromise" dirty words to some Republicans?
This leads to the third factor, the story of struggle. People know that we're in a new paradigm, and that until the middle class recovers, it's going to be tougher all around. People don't want to hear "things are fine" or "we're headed in the right direction." What they want to hear -- and what President Obama is uniquely situated to resonate -- is their stories. It's not only the national debt, it's the rising cost of health care. It's not public sector workers pitted against private sector workers, it's the cost of lettuce and bananas -- and a gallon of gas.
President Obama himself lived the struggles of the middle class, and one of his gifts as a speaker is the ability to capture the tensions and ambivalence people are feeling, and present the heart of hope within the plight, making the personal struggle a national concern. He did that in his speech in Cleveland, but did anyone hear it outside the beltway?
The fourth factor is the future, and being honest about it. That's something President Obama can do -- be honest about where we are. Most people recognize that the president could not correct the results of Republican gluttony and greed in just three years, but they need to know that we will get there.
Bottom line: Voters want President Obama, Mitt Romney and others to be honest about where we are, to tell it to them straight about the economy and what plans are they working on to make things better for everyone.
The vision President Obama -- or for that matter, Romney -- needs to articulate is written in the postcards the voters wrote: We know it's going to be a struggle; don't lie to us. But work with us. Show us a vision that focuses on basics, is long-term, and demands cooperation.
Sure, it's still the economy, but we're not stupid. Voters are ready to score or get back to work, taking care of their families and planning for a more prosperous future.
There's still time for President Obama to play offense, too.
© 2012, United Features Syndicate Inc.