The terms on which the 2012 U.S. election will be contested have been set, appropriately by the incumbent president speaking recently at a community college in Ohio. Mr. President, the microphone is yours:
“Yes, foreign policy matters. Social issues matter. But more than anything else, this election presents a choice between two fundamentally different visions of how to create strong, sustained growth.”
The Obama speech at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland produced carping and sneering from left to right. Reflecting the attention deficit disorders of a constantly tweeting world, his critics said the speech was too long at 53 minutes, and that it was a rehash of what Mr. Obama himself often calls “stuff.”
Days before the speech, the Democratic wizards James Carville and Stan Greenberg pleaded with Mr. Obama to admit the economy smells and explain “how are you going to make things better over the next four years.” The New York Times warned, “The president has less than five months to find a way to make a vital message sink in.”
What vital message? That speech was the basis on which Mr. Obama will seek re-election. The president’s Cleveland oration was terrific. If for the next five months the president and Mitt Romney spoke of nothing other than economic growth—on the stump, in their debates, in their sleep—this election would be the best $2 billion “investment” of campaign funds that Citizens United ever enabled. Get the growth choice right, and we’ll be ok. Get it wrong and your kids will be talking Australia emigration.
Right now, with growth stuck below 2%, we’re toast. With strong growth at 3% or better, there will be jobs. With long-term growth, Medicare, debt and the rest of the horribles that keep worrywarts awake at night are solvable. With strong growth, the U.S. will not have to cede world leadership prematurely to whichever Chinese functionary slugs his way to the top of their heap. With strong growth, your college graduate can move out of the house. With normal American growth, Europe may be irrelevant but it won’t die, and a U.S. president won’t look oddly small talking to the Vladimir Putins of the world.
Mr. Obama was exactly right in Cleveland when he said economic growth “is the defining issue of our time,” that his and his opponents’ views on growth are fundamentally different and “this election is your chance to break that stalemate.” This he gets. Only the most obtuse “pragmatists” persist in believing the solution lies in a mystical center somehow combining elements from this ideological oil and water.
Put differently, this is a substance election. It’s not about whether one “likes” Barack Obama or can’t warm to Mitt Romney. Voters have to pick two competing growth models, which means paying attention to what the candidates are saying about economic growth.
It’s true the Obama Cleveland speech had many familiar rhetorical distortions. One of the most revealing, though, is that “Governor Romney and his allies in Congress believe deeply in the theory that . . . the best way to grow the economy is from the top down.”
Whatever that may mean, more interesting is the Obama counter-theory found here, what he calls “our North Star—an economy that’s built not from the top down, but from a growing middle class.”
There is no theory anywhere in non-Marxist economics that says growth’s primary engine is a social class. A middle class is the result of growth, not its cause. Barack Obama not only believes in class-based growth but has built his whole growth strategy around it.
One word appears nowhere in the 53-minute Obama speech on economic growth: “capital.” Human, financial, whatever. Capital dare not speak its name.
Most revealing is that the phrases “my plan” and “I have a plan” appear 13 times. A central role for planning often appears in emerging, underdeveloped economies, not in an advanced economy like ours in which the discovery and diffusion of productive new ideas is spontaneous, rapid and unpredictable.
But he’s right: Trying to conjoin Obama growth theory with that of his opposition will produce economic stalemate. Voters have to choose.
Mr. Romney has been giving fine speeches on “the liberating power of the free enterprise system.” One hopes the Romney camp doesn’t think everyone knows what that means. These are difficult and confusing economic times, and Team Romney should not underestimate the appeal of Mr. Obama’s confused economic ideas if drilled daily into the electorate’s soft clay.
If Mr. Romney hopes to win what Barack Obama is rightly calling a defining growth election, the governor will have to refute in detail the president’s notions of how growth happens and then explain to voters the real-economy alternative.
Mitt Romney says, “I’ve done it.” To win, he’ll have to tell voters what “it” means.