President Obama's big speech in Cleveland, Ohio this afternoon was assumed to be a chance for his campaign to push the reset button and respond to Democrats who have been fretting -- some privately, some publicly -- about whether his message on the economy is connecting with the electorate.
His decision was, instead, largely to double-down on the sweeping populism from the speech he gave in Osawatomie, Kansas last December, reviving many of the same themes while suggesting Mitt Romney is a clone of George W. Bush.
"Governor Romney and his allies in Congress believe deeply in the theory that we tried during the last decade -- the theory that the best way to grow the economy is from the top down," he told supporters at Cuyahoga Community College. "So they maintain that if we eliminate most regulations, if we cut taxes by trillions of dollars, if we strip down government to national security and a few other basic functions, then the power of businesses to create jobs and prosperity will be unleashed, and that will automatically benefit us all."
He cast this a starkly ideological choice, and indeed, many expect the fall campaign to be about sharp differences in opinion on just about every issue -- a contrast with the muddled distinctions between the major party candidates in 2000 and 2004.
“This election presents a choice between two fundamentally different visions of how to create strong, sustained growth, how to pay down our long-term debt and, most of all, how to generate good, middle-class jobs so people can have confidence that if they work hard, they can get ahead,” Obama said. “This isn’t some abstract debate. This is not another trivial Washington argument. I have said that this is the defining issue of our time, and I mean it. I said that this is a make-or-break moment for America’s middle class, and I believe it. “
He implored the public to "render a verdict" on conservative economic orthodoxy.
“We tried this,” Obama said. “Their policies did not grow the economy, they did not grow the middle class, they did not reduce our debt.”
He added, “If you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney.”
As Chris Cilizza notes, the president also made a bid for the tiny pool of independent voters who aren't already polarized into one of the two camps.
“I will work with anyone of any party who believes that we’re in this together, who believes that we rise or fall as one nation and as one people. I’m convinced that there are actually a lot of Republicans out there who may not agree with every one of my policies but who still believe in a balanced, responsible approach to economic growth and who remember the lessons of our history, and who don’t like the direction their leaders are taking them.”
Obama mocked the "scary voice in the ads" being run against him by Super PACs on the airwaves, and often sounded quite a bit like former President Bill Clinton.
"And if you agree with me, if you believe this economy grows best when everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same set of rules, then I ask you to stand with me for a second term as president.”
As Mark Halperin pointed out yesterday, "No Drama Obama" is not the type to radically shift strategy or shake up his campaign staff. So it's perfectly in character for the president to stick to his guns while making some tweaks around the edges. Not everyone was impressed, though.
"I thought this honestly was one of the least successful speeches I've seen Barack Obama give," Jonathan Alter, the Bloomberg View columnist who is close to the White House, said on MSNBC. He suggested the speech lacked memorable lines and "lost the audience by the end."
Perhaps Obama has only himself to blame. He's dug out of quite a few holes with masterful speeches in the past -- most notably when he was forced to explain the heated rhetoric of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, in April 2008 -- and so now has an extremely high bar to live up to.
But this one probably won't go down in the history books, even if the campaign made clear it considered this a key moment, distributing praise for the speech and the president's approach to the economy from a litany of elected officials aross the country.