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Analysis: Obama Wasted a Big Chance to Sell His Economic Vision

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ABC News

Talk about wasted opportunities. To my mind, President Obama’s interview with ABC News certainly qualifies.

Good Morning America is the nation’s No. 1 morning show. It had nearly 6 million viewers as of late last month. Not a bad forum for making your best argument.  

Instead, Obama and George Stephanopoulos, a former White House aide in the Clinton administration, talked almost entirely in the cerebral, inside-Washington policy and strategy terms befitting two cerebral, inside-Washington strategists and policy wonks. In other words, Obama talked to Stephanopoulos instead of his audience.

Analogies and connections and details were missing. The human impact was missing. Even talking points seemed to be missing. I’d also take issue with Obama’s downbeat assessment of whether a grand fiscal bargain is achievable. Don’t we need a little presidential optimism and encouragement at this point? Where’s that yes-we-can spirit?

And I haven’t even gotten to “my goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance” or “we don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt.” It’s not that those statements aren’t necessarily true or authentic. But there are so many other things Obama could have said instead.

For instance: We all want to balance the budget, but if we do it the way Paul Ryan suggests, it could cost us 2 million jobs in 2014.

Or: My goal is to balance the budget, but the deep cuts supported by Republicans like Paul Ryan would make it take longer to do that because so many people would lose their jobs and have to stop paying taxes.

Or: Paul Ryan and I both want to balance the budget, but I want to make sure we get there without people losing their jobs or health care.

Or: The Paul Ryan plan sounds good but we can see that deep spending cuts are making the economy worse in European countries like Greece, which has a 60 percent youth unemployment rate.

Or: The best way to get to a balanced budget is with gradual cuts, because that will allow the economy to keep growing and more people will have jobs and be able to keep paying taxes.

Obama actually did say something along those lines once during the interview. “My goal is how do we grow the economy, put people back to work, and if we do that we’re gonna be bringin’ in more revenue,” he said.

It would have been better if he had said “bringin’ in more taxes to help reduce the deficit.” It would have been even better if that had not come right after the part about how he’s not chasing a balanced budget—a self-contained sentence perfectly tailored to feed Republican assertions, and public perceptions, that Democrats are spendthrifts.

Hand it to the loyal opposition, never slackers when it comes to seizing the moment. “Dismissive” and “astonishing,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner told ABC. Boehner weighed in Wednesday with a release headlined “President Obama Declares: No Debt Crisis, No Spending Problem, No Balanced Budget.” The Republican National Committee chimed in, as did National Review's Jim Geraghty. "When it comes to chasing a balanced budget, President Obama is not exactly Inspector Javert," Geraghty wrote.

Obama's balanced-budget sentence recalls “you didn’t build that” in its richness as a gift to the GOP. The “build that” sentence — so beloved by conservatives that it was the theme of an entire night at the Republican convention — was more a matter of careless diction on the campaign trail as Obama made an often stated point that businesses depend on government services such as roads and schools. The president’s budget statement may not have been a misstatement, but polls show why it was a mistake.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month, Republicans bested Democrats in only three issue areas: reducing the federal deficit, controlling government spending, and ensuring a strong national defense. A Bloomberg poll last month had 35 percent approving of how Obama was handling the deficit, versus 55 percent who approved of Republicans. In a Quinnipiac poll last month, 39 percent trusted Obama more to cut federal spending and 48 percent trusted Republicans more.

Obama’s shortcomings as a communicator are not new (where is the secretary of explaining stuff when you need him?) and this incident will pass. But in the fifth year of his presidency, Obama could still use a media coach, or at least someone to make sure he stops taking opportunities to miss opportunities.

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