Back in April, my esteemed mentor and colleague William Galston and I had an exchange at TNR about whether the presidential election would necessarily serve as a “referendum” on the president’s record (particularly with respect to the economy, of course) and what that meant for Obama’s re-election strategy. I won’t rehash the entire discussion, but Bill leaned heavily on the political science consensus that referenda are unavoidable for incumbents, while I demurred in part, citing the contrary example of 2004, the impact of polarization on the number of persuadable voters, and the need to make a sharp characterization of Mitt Romney’s sometimes hazy character and record, as factors dictating a strongly comparative Obama message.

Now after an Obama speech widely hailed as setting the tone for his campaign’s treatment of economic and fiscal issues from here on out, Galston has unsurprisingly registered concern in another TNR column:

"Today in Cleveland, President Obama jettisoned the theme of economic inequality that had suffused his economic speeches for more than six months, focusing instead on “how we grow faster, how we create more jobs, and how we pay down our debt.” The real issue, he said, is how we reverse the “erosion of middle-class jobs and middle-class incomes.”
In making that claim, Obama doubled down on the guiding assumption of his campaign—that he can turn the 2012 election into a choice between two models for the future, rather than a referendum on his first term. He made only a brief effort to defend his economic record, focusing instead on what he intends to do in a second term and on what he believes are the fatal flaws of the Republican/Romney agenda."

After unfavorably comparing Obama’s message to its ostensible model, Reagan’s “Morning in America” plea in 1984 against turning back the clock to the bad old days of the Carter Administration, Galston concludes:

"The president and his top political advisors clearly reject the view that his record is central and believe they can make this election into a choice between two futures. As a Democrat, I hope they’re right. But as a student of American politics, I fear they’re not."

I’m not as sure as Bill is that Obama won’t spend time defending his economic record: The “boring” and “unoriginal” parts of his Cleveland speech that the pundits kept complaining about involved a lot of talk about what his administration has accomplished in areas ranging from the auto industry to education and energy. But there’s a solid reason Team Obama has been forced into a “comparative” message, and it’s not just because job growth seems to be lagging at a crucial moment in the campaign.

Even big fans of the “referendum” theory agree that challengers have to cross an invisible threshold of “acceptability” before they can defeat even the most vulnerable incumbent. Mitt Romney is running an extraordinarily evasive campaign in terms of his record in the one public office he’s occupied, and the agenda he’s been made to accept in order to win the GOP nomination. That’s no accident: There are sound reasons to believe his record and especially his agenda will be highly problematic for him, in no small part because it reflects what Bill Clinton shrewdly called (a term Obama quoted in Cleveland) “Bush on steroids”—a rightward twist on the economic policies that gave the country years of sluggish growth, rising inequality, middle-class insecurity, large budget deficits, and then the Great Recession.

One of the great ironies of contemporary politics is that Republicans have succeeded in separating themselves from the Bush legacy by moving to the right of that one-time hero of movement conservatives. They do have “new ideas,” but they are ideas that until very recently were considered out of the mainstream (e.g., total abandonment of Keynsianism, a deflationary, hard-money prejudice in monetary policy, an effort to shrink the public sector to a fixed percentage of GDP, climate-change denialism, frank opposition to public education, etc.). Making the voting public understand that development—and its implications for anyone with bad memories of the Bush administration—is essential to Obama’s ability to contextualize his own record and defend his own future agenda. To put it bluntly, if Mitt Romney succeeds in presenting himself to swing voters as this mild-mannered “moderate” technocrat who will use his business skills to “fix” the economy and otherwise leave cherished programs and public policy commitments alone, he will be well across the threshold that makes him broadly acceptable to voters seeking “change” not only from Obama’s record but from Bush’s.

Romney is not going to talk about his agenda and its organic relationship to the failed and unpopular hobbyhorses of conservatism unless he is forced to do so. The media show no great inclination to take on that task. Obama must assume it, or all the efforts in the world to defend his own record are likely to fail with low-information swing voters who have no real idea of the opposition party’s lurch in exactly the wrong direction from Bush to Romney.