President Barack Obama won the 2008 election with a message of hope and change in an America fatigued by war and frightened by an unfolding economic crisis. Four years later, the president can point to significant accomplishments. But the economy remains sluggish, and jobs are too scarce. Troops are still under fire in Afghanistan and health care reform, Obama's signature legislation, remains controversial. As the Democratic National Convention opens Tuesday in Charlotte, the president has to defend his record and offer a specific blueprint for building upon it in a second term.
Obama ended the war in Iraq, authorized the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and is winding down the war in Afghanistan. His health care reform law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and already benefits millions of Americans even before its main features start in 2014. The Dodd-Frank regulatory reforms were necessary medicine to force Wall Street to behave more responsibly and provide better consumer protections. These are significant achievements that Obama should not run away from, even under the steady Republican attacks.
The economy, of course, overshadows everything else. Republican nominee Mitt Romney characterized Obama as a disappointing failure last week because the economy remains uncertain and unemployment remains too high. It is a difficult argument to make that things could be far worse. But the facts are that the federal stimulus did save or create up to 3.3 million jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The auto bailout also worked, saving jobs and allowing those companies to become profitable again. Obama needs to remind voters this week how far the nation has come since those dark days nearly four years ago.
More importantly, the president needs to better explain his plan for addressing the federal budget crisis and reducing the debt. On this issue, Obama has failed to provide the leadership needed to reach a reasonable compromise with Congress. It is disingenuous for Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, to attack Obama for failing to embrace a report by the Simpson-Bowles Commission — a commission the president created. After all, Ryan was a member of that commission and opposed its report. But the commission's work could have been used as a framework for a broader agreement, and the president failed to run with it. After the commission's report fell three members short of the 14 members needed for formal approval, Obama let it die on the shelf.
The commission called for significant tax increases and spending cuts. Since then, Obama has repeatedly said he wants to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 annually — or 2 percent of Americans. Raising that cap to $1 million would have been better politics. But Obama also should be more specific about spending cuts to counter the no-new-taxes budget plan by Ryan and the House Republicans. He should offer more detail about his plans for preserving Medicare beyond criticizing the voucher scheme proposed by Romney and Ryan. And he should offer his own ideas on reforming Social Security and Medicaid.
While Obama's personal approval ratings are higher than Romney's, voters remain split over his job performance and whether he deserves to be re-elected. Romney argued the president cannot be counted on to improve the economy based on his record. This week, the president should answer that criticism with a specific plan for moving forward.