This non-bylined editorial in The New York Times explains how neither candidate has effectively packaged their ideas about the economy in a way that has resonated with voters. Implicitly, since John McCain has done a fairly decent job of outlining the thrust of his proposals (that is, even greater tax cuts for the wealthy), the piece largely echoes the salient theme of David Leonhardt’s piece in the Times Magazine on Obamanomics; Obama’s problem isn’t his policies, it’s his inability to clearly and concisely articulate them. Granted, his message isn’t as simple as John McCain’s dogmatic paeans to wanton tax cutting, but the facts are on Obama’s side.
While the economy has grown — if a far more modest average annual 1.9% GDP growth under Bush than Clinton’s 3.6% — prosperity has concentrated almost exclusively at the top during the Bush years, and economic inequality has grown as wages of middle class families have stagnated. Obama’s policies directly address this problem by (gulp) a redistributive change to the tax code, which would decrease the burden on most households by a much greater margin than those advocated by McCain’s policy. In order to address problems of foreign competition for unemployed laborers, Obama would also introduce a New Deal-esque focus on infrastructure development. This would have the two-fold benefit of supplying jobs and creating a more efficient, less oil dependent economy. But even in the large oversimplification I just oulined, the difficulty into packaging complex policy into a 30 second ad is evident even if basic tax comparisons throw the contrast into sharp relief.
But even highlighting Obama’s tax cuts for the middle class is not without problems. One obvious dilemma with beating the drum to tax cuts is that Democrats have largely and for years decried tax cutting as the manifestation of an irresponsible, self-serving GOP agenda. Also obvious is that Obama’s policy is quite a bit different than dogmatic tax cuts for the wealthy. But in order demonstrate this, Obama must point out that his proposal would raise taxes on the top 20% to just above Clinton taxation levels. Since raising taxes regardless of who they nail isn’t usually popular and is thus summarily omitted from ads, Obama’s message winds up sounding too similar to McCain’s, whose economic policy is almost monomaniacally focused on tax cutting. This hearkens back to 2004, when Democrats refused to acknowledge that Iraq was a strategic disaster, but instead took issue with Bush’s tactical approach and hewed the “liberal hawk” line. I think we all now how well that turned out.
So, given a difficult to explain, but clearly more substantive policy, how can Obama sell his plan without resorting to professorial pointy-headedness or sounding like a Republican? It seems like the best path forward is to expose the shallowness of McCain’s plan vis-a-vis McCain’s apparent concave-headedness. And here’s the ad.