What Was Missing from Obama’s Convention

We now know more about Joe and Jill Biden’s dating history than we do about what Biden and Barack Obama would do in a second term. I understand the desire to turn politics into just another episode of the Bachelorette. But this seems a sad mix of TMI on one hand, and too many platitudes on the other.

Last night, Obama painted in the broadest terms his vision for America. And throughout the convention Democrats described what they say is the wide philosophical gulf between them and Republicans.

But what does that mean in terms of actual economic policy? That’s much harder to say.

Of course, convention speeches are not supposed to be State of the Union laundry lists. They are intended to frame a candidate’s vision. But for that vision to mean anything, it needs to be buttressed by real policy. And that went missing at both conventions, though in very different ways.

Romney offered a big agenda. Tax reform. Entitlement reform. A radically smaller government. But in each case, Romney presented incomplete plans: Specific tax cuts without any of the difficult offsetting reductions in tax subsidies. A promise of smaller government without ever saying what programs he’d cut.

Obama, in contrast to both Romney and his own campaign four years ago, painted a very modest agenda. And even there, left out the details. The president often talks about playing the long game. This week, he played the small game.

Obama framed his second term in the context of five “goals”—expanding American manufacturing, becoming more self-reliant in energy production, improving education, preserving national security, and reducing the deficit. I’ll bet these promises have appeared in every platform of both political parties since at least the 1970s.

Like Romney and his convention last week, Democrats did a far better job talking about what’s wrong with the other guy’s vision than describing how their own would translate into real initiatives.

Look at the heart of Obama’s acceptance speech last night:

  • “When Governor Romney and his allies in Congress tell us we can somehow lower our deficit by spending trillions more on new tax breaks for the wealthy – well, you do the math. I refuse to go along with that.”
  • “I refuse to ask middle-class families to give up their deductions.”
  • “I will never turn Medicare into a voucher.”

Fair enough, but what would he do?

Obama reduced tax reform to a single sentence: “I want to reform the tax code so that it’s simple, fair, and asks the wealthiest households to pay higher taxes on incomes over $250,000.”

In truth, Obama has never seemed interested in broad-based tax reform and, if his speech and party platform are any indication, he won’t pursue it with any enthusiasm in a second term.

Does that mean tax reform will be a non-issue?  I don’t think so. Deficit politics may leave him no choice. But he’ll come to reform without passion.

Putting aside the silly GOP hyperbole about Obama being a socialist, the fact is the president is a mainstream, slightly left-of-center Democrat who is commited to American-style solidarity. “We believe,” he said, “in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”

But how does that translate into real policy? I get that promises to subsidize manufacturers will help Obama win votes in Ohio. But it all seems so…small.