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America's next president faces reality check not yet addressed in campaigns

Amy E. BlackThe Christian Science Monitor

Four years ago, Democratic nominee Barack Obama addressed a record-breaking crowd under the stars in Denver. Last night, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., he returned to the familiar backdrop of a convention hall. The smaller venue – forced by bad-weather predictions – is emblematic of the much different political context facing the president today.

In 2008, it was easy to drum up enthusiasm for hope and change. Mr. Obama and his attractive family symbolized youth, optimism, and opportunity. Voters were weary from two wars and the economy was spiraling downward. People needed hope and craved change.

They still do. But it is much harder for Obama to justify four more years, given that the greatest number of Americans live in poverty since record-taking began more than 50 years ago, that food stamp rolls have reached an all-time high, and jobs and the economy are growing at only a sluggish pace.

Thursday night, the president faced the hard task of defending his record, recapturing voter enthusiasm, and laying out a plan for the future. He only partly succeeded, deftly reviving his hope-and-change theme by anchoring it in the American people themselves. “I am hopeful because of you,” Obama said to the crowd and to viewers. He asked voters to join him in charting a better path for America. “The election four years ago wasn’t about me,” he exhorted, “It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change.”

Obama trumpeted his accomplishments – a health-care bill, a revived auto industry, and the end of the war in Iraq. But he still needs to build a clearer, more coherent defense of his record.

Bill Clinton laid out an excellent playbook on Wednesday night, and Obama would do well to follow it. Repeating the refrain “we’re all in this together,” the former president adroitly responded to Republican attacks, recasting a presidential term ridden with partisan conflict and political stalemate into a valiant rebuilding effort that is laying the foundation for future prosperity.

In Charlotte, Obama and party leaders needed to generate enthusiasm, which translates to donations and gets voters to the polls. In 2008, Obama raised a record $750 million, outspending GOP nominee John McCain more than 2 to 1. This year he will not have such a big advantage. Obama has outraised Mitt Romney so far, but the Romney campaign has been winning the fundraising war all summer and is closing the gap.

The convention and speeches by Michelle Obama, former President Clinton, and Obama himself, generated excitement in the crowd and will likely provide a welcome boost to refill campaign coffers and rally the troops for a time. But the president and his party will have to do more to keep the hope alive through November.

No amount of lofty rhetoric can disguise the reality facing the president outside the arena. As the confetti settles and voters take stock of the real state of the union, they may be less enticed by Obama’s plea for four more years. What they needed most was a convincing plan for the next term. Obama generally delivered, outlining policy priorities and casting a broad vision of his goals going forward. But his plan was neither complete nor convincing.

Much like Mr. Romney and running-mate Paul Ryan’s oft-cited claim they will create 12 million new jobs, Obama also made bold promises waiting to be broken. He promised to add a million new manufacturing jobs by 2016, double exports, meet a range of other evenly-rounded targets, and do it all while reducing deficits by $4 trillion. Such a litany of target numbers is not a detailed plan; it is fodder for future fact checkers.

Public policy, of course, isn’t this simple. Presidents don’t have that much unilateral control, and policy proposals rarely live up to the hype. If government leaders knew the perfect formulas for job creation, trade expansion, or any other laudable goal, we would have no need for debate. None of us are well served when presidential candidates over-promise and pander. In a time of growing cynicism and distrust of government, voters need more straight talk and fewer false promises.

As enticing as it may be to evaluate the conventions and unpack the speeches, the real battle of the presidential election is just beginning. The party faithful who gathered in Charlotte and most of the viewers who watched from home decided on their candidate months, if not years, ago.

But many of the voters who will determine the election outcome have yet to tune in, moreover choose sides. According to a Pew Research Center poll last weekend, only 29 percent of Americans are paying attention to the 2012 campaign. In 2008, 1 in 10 voters picked a candidate within a week of the election, and 4 percent reached a final decision on election day.

Last night, Obama contrasted two competing visions – one brimming with optimism and best-case scenarios, the other a harsh caricature of Republican goals. Republicans will “gut education” while Democrats will help all children achieve their dreams. Opponents of Obama’s blueprint for health-care reform don’t have honest differences on policy, they just say “if you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick.”

Such a rendering may work well with stalwart Democrats, but many moderate Republicans and independents will recoil from this less-than-charitable interpretation of some of their deeply-held views. If the president wants to win re-election, he and his party have to find a better way to convince undecided voters to choose Obama’s way forward.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.