Commentary Magazine


Obama Needs an Elevator Pitch

As tech savvy and streamlined as the Obama campaign wants to depict itself, its reelection message is remarkably clunky. Take the candidates’ dueling economic speeches today. Romney kept his to a concise 20 minutes. Obama’s dragged on for nearly an entire excruciating hour.

At the beginning of his speech, Obama told us the election would be about the fundamental differences between his economic vision and Romney’s. Then he rephrased this same idea about a dozen different times, just to make sure we all got it. Then he droned on about the origins of the economic crisis, veered off into Bush-blaming, threw in a class warfare interlude and rambled for awhile about how the recovery is moving in the right direction.

Finally — 40 minutes after the cable news stations cut him off and the committed political junkies were forced to switch to C-SPAN — Obama circled back to the original point about his economic vision. I think. In the daze of boredom, it was hard to tell.

We already knew Obama was long-winded. But his overly-complicated reelection message actually necessitates these sort of brutally long, technical, lawyerly speeches — and that’s a big problem when his opponent has what amounts to a straightforward elevator pitch.

Obama’s message requires him to juggle several arguments. First, that his predecessor is solely to blame for the economic problems, and that experts did not realize how extensive the crisis was when Obama first took office. Second, that Obama’s policies put the economy back on the path to recovery, but were not extensive enough. Third, that the recovery is lagging because of Republican obstructionism and global events out of his control. Fourth is that, if reelected, Obama will be able to overcome the gridlock and put policies in place that will speed the recovery.

And he needs to persuade the public to believe all of that.

The fourth argument is the one Obama would be smart to focus on, but as we saw from his speech today, it’s the one he’s giving the least attention to. If Obama is persistent, he may be able to convince the American people that the stalled recovery isn’t due to his own incompetence. But they want to hear what he is going to do about it, and why his second term policies would be more effective than his first term policies.

Romney’s message, in contrast, is straightforward: Obama had his chance and failed. If you give me a chance, I will succeed.

The first part of that is self-evident. The economy has not recovered, and the recovery is lagging. Even top Democrats will admit that. All Romney needs to worry about is convincing voters on the second point. Instead of mocking the GOP for having a message that can “fit in a Tweet,” Obama would be better off taking a lesson from it: Keep it simple.