It’s about trust. That’s President Obama’s message for the home stretch.

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Oct. 23 2012 8:35 PM

It’s Not About the Economy, Stupid

It’s about trust. That’s President Obama’s message for the home stretch.

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President Obama in Delray Beach, Fla. on Tuesday

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

DELRAY BEACH, Fla.—President Obama moved from center stage to center court Tuesday. The day after the third and final debate, Obama started his day at a tennis stadium grinning under the waves of adulation from an eager and approving crowd. The night before, the president was all sharp elbows and crisp declarations about world affairs, but for those arrayed in the bleachers surrounding him on all sides, he was in full campaign mode, joking, switching accents, and returning to the perils of Romnesia—less Situation Room and more The Situation. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Under a peekaboo sun, the president said Romney was doing the Okie-Doke, playing hide and seek with his true plans. "Last night we had a stage 3 case,” he said, in a mock diagnosis of his opponent’s condition. “If you can’t seem to remember the policies on your website, you might have Romnesia. If you can't even remember what you said last week, you might have Romnesia.”

Obama wasn't just revisiting a comedy routine he'd unveiled for the first time last Friday, he was trying to explain exactly why this deficiency made Romney unfit to be president. "This is about trust,” he said. “There is no more serious issue in a presidential campaign than trust. The person who leads this country you've got to have some confidence that he or she means what she says. What they believe that they are going to do it. You want someone to look you in the eye and say, ‘Here's what I stand for. Here's what I'll fight for. Here's what I care about. Here’s who I'm going to look out for in the debates in Washington.’ " 

The message is that if you think there’s something you like about Romney, he can’t be trusted to deliver. But Obama is also trying to redefine the race. It’s not about foreign affairs or the economy. It’s about trust.

There's still a tension in this line of attack. If Romney is not to be believed, then why should people weigh the things he says that are very conservative over the things that he says that are less so? Couldn't it be possible that the moderate-sounding guy who is willing to rearrange his policies and emphasis for a few debates might be a similarly pragmatic president? No, say Obama strategists, he's got a conservative core; what can't be trusted is anything that he does that suggests otherwise. “He knows he can’t sell his beliefs,” Obama said at a rally in Dayton, Ohio later on Tuesday. “So he’s doing everything he can to hide his true positions.”

The president brought a new diagnosis of his opponent and a new pamphlet of old policies. A glossy brochure is being sent to more than 3 million swing-state voters outlining his plans for the next term. Inside, Obama is dressed in casual Friday clothes meeting with women, children, the elderly, and people involved in purposeful economic pursuit—a small businesswoman and people in lab coats

Gov. Romney has said the president has no ideas for the future, and even some of Obama’s allies make that charge. The brochure was the latest attempt to correct that impression. Obama had tried the night before too, making a few detours in the foreign policy debate to outline his domestic plans in bullet-point fashion.

The agenda is not a mystery. Obama has been promoting it for more than a year: investment in manufacturing, education, infrastructure, energy production, and a trillion dollar start on shrinking the deficit. The American people either haven’t been listening, or don’t find what he’s selling very attractive.

There is one other possibility. The search for Obama’s policies may be like a weekend trip to the refrigerator. You open it again and again, staring inside for a minute before you close it once more, unmoved and still hungry. Sometimes it takes another person to come along and point out that there really is something in there to eat, you’ve just been missing it.

Republicans immediately dismissed the policies in the document as warmed over. True, but doesn’t that undermine the argument that Obama doesn’t have any plans?

Being warmed over may be a disqualifying characteristic, but if old ideas are bad ideas, then Romney’s 20 percent reduction in tax rates is in danger. Marginal rate reductions are hardly a new idea. Indeed, it appeals to Republicans because it has a whiff of Reagan.

When the president said that Romney shouldn't be concerned about Romnesia because Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions, the crowd erupted with such delight that it felt for a moment like we'd been transported to one of those 2008 Obama rallies.

Obama left the stage with a bounce. He was clearly having a blast. In this final stretch of the campaign, he will almost certainly have the advantage over his opponent in sheer performance energy at campaign events. Romney can turn out a crowd and they’ve been getting bigger since his successful Denver debate, but he just doesn’t put on the show that Obama does. Some people in the audience had been waiting in line for six hours, and judging from the constant and sustained applause, they felt the wait was worth it. “I believe in you,” said the president, “and I need you to believe in me.”

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