What Was Missing from Obama’s Convention

By :: September 7th, 2012

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.




  1. Michael Bindner  ::  3:14 pm on September 7th, 2012:

    I was hoping for more detail. I thought I had missed it when doing the dishes. Nope. The best tax reform plans out there are on the Republican side, offered by Michael Graetz and Lawrence B. Lindsey. I have not seen where either of these gentlemen has been tapped by either campaign – nor have I been nor has Len Burman been (to highlight left wing thought leaders). Bruce Bartlett has hung out on the sidelines, although he is calling the race for Obama.

    Less detail is probably better. The promise not to raise taxes on the middle class has caused no end of trouble, since as TPC has shown, the individual impact on letting the Bush cuts expire is fairly minor for most families, but major for the wealthy. It would have been better to go off the fiscal cliff in 2010. Obama has more tax cuts to defend just now than Bush – and the GOP will use that against them unless their internal polling shows they will lose the House and not win the Senate. While they may be able to bluff themselves, their donors have too much at stake not to push for an early deal on the fiscal cliff.

    Real reform takes an election. No one has made such reform, in detailed form, a campaign plank. One would think that with the current GOP being less wealthy in the rank and file all the time that explaining a consumption tax that ends filing for most families would be just the thing Romney would have proposed in his convention speech. Of course, if he did, it would make the Dick Armey flat tax wing, who want to make tax payment a chore (even to the extent of stopping withholding and demanding an actual payment) very upset. Mitt does not have the moral courage for that fight, even if it would win him the election.

  2. AMTbuff  ::  11:28 pm on September 7th, 2012:

    What’s missing is any details about the painful changes ahead, or any warning that pain will be necessary to avoid a financial collapse. I thought that Ryan’s nomination would start that discussion, but so far it has not. I’m very disappointed.

    Ideally the Democrats would put forth a plan of painful middle class tax increases and means testing of benefits. Instead it appears that the Wall Street Journal editorial page is correct: “Democrats do have a plan, kind of. As debt continues to build, at some point U.S. creditors will lose confidence in the Treasury’s ability to repay. Then Democrats and even some Republicans will impose a European-style value-added tax or another money machine to appease the bond markets.”

    In other words, Republicans say they want to avoid a financial collapse. Democrats are waiting until it happens. Even though the Republicans might not follow Ryan over that political cliff, November’s choice should be easy for voters.

    Ryan’s position on having the fiscal gap debate can be seen in the 14 minutes starting here: YOUTUBE DOT COM/watch?v=iwC4ovcz508&t=27m50s

  3. Ralph H  ::  11:28 am on September 8th, 2012:

    Short of somehow raising taxes on $250K households without congress, there seems to be no plan. It should be noted this raises very little money. If he had a real plan we should not expect it until after the election. If he or Romney dared say they have to raise taxes in the “middle class” (because thats where the money is) the election would be over.

  4. Ron  ::  12:31 pm on September 8th, 2012:

    One correction: Obama is not “slightly left of center.” When he was in the Senate he had the most liberal voting record of all 100 Senators. Now that he is President, his extreme overspending is NOT centrist. Bill Clinton is “slightly left of center.” When the Democrats choose a candidate from the left wing rather than the centrist wing of their party, he is either unelectable (Humphrey, etc.) or a failed President (Carter, Obama). America is best governed from the center, by a centrist Democrat like Kennedy or Clinton, or a moderate Republican like Eisenhower or Romney.

  5. Tom Warner  ::  6:25 pm on September 8th, 2012:

    I would agree that the consumption tax is the easiest way out of the revenue mess. It would be easy to execute since states have a sales tax and the mechanism is already in place.

    But the greatest benefit would come from its agnostic construct. We have gotten into this mess because lobbyist/politicians buy votes through the individual tax code. Consumption tax would eliminate that.

    Just like the states, there would have to be exceptions and modifications to not unduly and unfairly burden economic disadvantaged. Necessities, such as food, would go untaxed. And high ticket items, such as cars, would be capped/modified.

    But it will have to be a significant percentage…probably 20% to make up for the income tax elimination.

  6. Weekend Roundup « Double Taxation: A Take On All Things Taxes  ::  10:22 am on September 10th, 2012:

    […] Howard Gleckman over at the Tax Policy Center sums up both conventions — and bipartisan politics in general — wonderfully by pointing […]