• By: Simon Vodrey

A Tale of Two Conventions: The Summer Campaign for the White House Draws to a Close

With both the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) now over, the American summer political season has officially drawn to a close. Last week’s DNC in Charlotte, North Carolina and the previous week’s Republican counterpart in Tampa, Florida offered both parties a three-to-four day opportunity to re-energize their political base and to redefine their party’s presidential candidate. The climax of each convention came when incumbent President Barack Obama as well as his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, spoke at length to make a direct, uninterrupted appeal to the millions of Americans watching on television. Each man explained how he would jumpstart the near-stagnant American economy as well as the direction in which he would steer the country as he forged four years worth of policies from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

Pundits on both sides of the aisle will undoubtedly continue to argue that one convention (or one speech) was more effective than the other but the fact remains that, post convention, each party is simply hoping to gain and maintain the traditional bump in the polls. But this year’s presidential election race has proven time and again to be anything but traditional: given the razor-thin margin separating Obama and Romney, even the slightest boost in public opinion must be maintained at any cost. For example, President Obama’s national approval ratings are stuck below 50% (although he appears to be slightly ahead of Romney in many of the all important “swing states”) and he is still lagging behind Governor Romney in terms of who the American people think could do a better job turning around America’s sputtering economy.

Of those Americans planning to vote in the November 6th Presidential election, most have probably already chosen their candidate and they will not alter their decision. Thus, the battle now rages for the small portion of the American public that is undecided and also for the handful of states that could flip to either party without warning (the aforementioned “swing states”). Both Obama and Romney intended to use their speeches to simultaneously appeal to their parties’ base and to entice these undecided “independent” voters to vote for them rather than for their opponent. This is no easy task to accomplish. Both Romney and Obama offered speeches that sought to redefine themselves positively while defining their opponent negatively, all the while outlining the direction in which their administration would take the country and describing the policy items and priorities that they would pursue. The last of these goals remains the most convoluted since both men delivered speeches that were heavy on rhetoric and platitudes but light on the specific details about how they would deal with the one thing that matters most to Americans in this election cycle: the economy.

In his speech to the stadium full of Republican delegates and media journalists, Romney was quick to frame himself as a pragmatic businessman with the private sector experience needed to turn around America’s ailing economy and also to frame the President as an inexperienced and resentful neophyte when it comes to managing the U.S. economy. On this topic he stated that, “And yet the centerpiece of the President’s reelection campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression?” He then went on to characterize the President as an apologetic and ineffectual leader by stating that, “In America, we celebrate success. We don’t apologize for success.” Romney then invoked the spirit of Ronald Reagan by identifying that “The President cannot tell us that you’re better off today than when he took office,” a comment that harkens back to then candidate Ronald Reagan’s effective televised appeal to the American public during which, one week prior to his defeating incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Presidential election, Reagan asked, “It might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” Romney also discussed the importance of returning America to a path of fiscal and economic prudence through addressing the nation’s crippling debt accumulation.

Romney hoped to draw a clear ideological line in the sand to separate his vision of the way that the American economic system should function from that advocated by the President and the Democratic Party. With this goal in mind, Romney stated that, “It doesn’t take a special government commission to tell us what America needs. What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs.” He inferred that Obama has become fixated on issues that are less important to the majority of Americans and offered himself as a clear, common-sense alternative to the President by pointing out that, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” Romney proposed to help Americans and their families through a five-step plan to create 12 million new jobs within the next eight years. That said, aside from identifying the importance of making North America energy independent by taking full advantage of America’s vast hydrocarbon fuel sources, removing unnecessary barriers to the use of hydrocarbon fuels from Canada and Mexico, increasing the skills and training necessary for successfully competing in the increasingly competitive global economy and by “forging new trade agreements,” it should be said that the specifics about how these 12 million new jobs would be created were sparse.

A week later, President Obama also delivered a speech that too was heavy on rhetoric and light on details about what the second chapter of an Obama presidency would specifically entail. Near the beginning of his speech, Obama pointed out an undeniable fact about modern high-stakes political campaigning by noting that often, “The truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising.” Yet, instead of offering the American public a clear idea of what he would pursue if given a second term, he tried to portray himself as an elder statesman representing a far different ideological perspective and vision for twenty-first centuryAmerica than that outlined by Romney.

Furthermore, Obama’s speech was full of words about what he has deemed to be his foreign policy triumphs but which largely ignored a detailed discussion of the domestic priorities that are the top concern of the American people, the most important being how to heal the American economy. On this topic, the President said little but he did stress the importance of “patience.” However, after four years of economic policies that have not substantially reduced America’s economic woes and with the release of yet another month’s worth of disappointing job reports last Friday, a new campaign slogan of “patience,” not to mention the previous election cycle’s “hope” and “change,” may not be palatable to a country that continues to be home to a mass of unemployed and underemployed voters representing more than double the total population of Greece.