Michael Tomasky Gives the President Some Advice: Grow a Pair, Obama!

Second-guessing about the Obama campaign has begun. Fortunately, the fix is obvious: Hit. Romney. Hard.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photos

There’s getting to be an awful lot of cooks in the White House’s kitchen. Stan Greenberg, Jim Carville, former White House aides, high-ranking Democrats, turtle doves, and partridges in pear trees are all over the newspapers fretting and kvetching. Then bad news hits again, like the Fed report about lost household income. Obama’s giving another big speech Thursday, which has long since become something to fear in some vague way rather than look forward to. This is exactly when and how these quadrennial Democratic cluster-you-know-whats start. Second-guessers start leaking, strategists clash, and before long, you’ve got Al Gore 2000, running as a centrist, then a populist, afraid even to defend evolution, as I recall from one especially grim episode. I’m not saying everyone should chill. The problems are real. But this is all getting way too complicated. The fix is actually simple: Attack.

For the past three weeks, beginning with the Cory Booker-befouled Bain week, Mitt Romney has been getting essentially a free ride. With no job, he’s out campaigning full time. And with the economy in the shape it’s in, his task is easy. Bang away. Go to a swing state, find some place that’s suffering, and the material practically writes itself. This is all he needs to do every day for the next 140-whatever days.

Meanwhile, what’s Obama doing? He spent part of yesterday at a barbeque joint on Capitol Hill celebrating Father’s Day. I wish I were kidding. From Yahoo News: “The ‘Fatherhood Buzz’ campaign is designed to ‘reach out to dads with positive information through barbers and barber shops as a part of the administration's longstanding Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative,’ according to the White House.”

Excuse me. WHAT?! I understand that he’s president, and presidents have to pardon turkeys and meet the New York Giants and all that business. But, uh, he doesn’t have much time for this sort of thing right now. He’s supposed to be fighting for his political life—and, by the way, for the middle class. Remember them? They figured prominently in that Kansas speech last year, and I and lots of folks like me were gratified that he was finally going to do the thing he should have been doing for years and position himself as the middle class’ avenger. But like so many Obama tropes, the middle class has sort of floated off to Mars. Or maybe the barber shop.

Meanwhile, you have in Romney a candidate to whom the word “vague” applies roughly as “mean” applied to Pol Pot. He barnstorms the country saying Obama is anti-business and he’s just going to get in there and by cracky the market will start buzzing like an electric chair. He has committed a few specifics to paper. His tax plan is reasonably specific, and it is a disaster in waiting—as I’ve written before, the average tax cut for households earning more than $1 million a year would be north of $250,000, or twice what George Bush gave them. Heard Obama mention that? His budget plan is also reasonably specific and disastrous, requiring (to reach his target of keeping spending at 20 percent of GDP while increasing the Pentagon’s budget) 30 percent cuts in domestic programs. Tea partiers want that, but it’s pretty doubtful that most swing voters do. Has Obama mentioned that?

But in most places, Romney is ridiculously vague. His plan for health care is to repeal “Obamacare” and let the free market run. But as Ezra Klein noted yesterday, Romney’s little briefing paper says he would “end tax discrimination against the individual purchase of insurance.” What that means in English is do away with the tax deduction for employer-purchased health care. That’s a tax increase. But of course he doesn’t explain how he’ll end this vicious discrimination, because explaining inevitably gets into cost which in turn gets into how it’s paid for, and he obviously just hopes to avoid talking about that.

There’s only one way to make him talk about that and 50 other things like it. Obama has to raise them and ask the pointed questions. The press won’t ask unless and until Obama asks. That’s how this works. Two weeks of sharp, specific questions and accusations would change the dynamic in a hurry.

Democrats, as is their wont in these situations, wring their hands and start soul-searching. What’s needed here isn’t soul-searching. It’s gut-punching, as in, get out there and do some. Of course, it helps if they act like they’re on the same team, which they didn’t during Bain week. But they ought to be able to do it on the questions of stewardship of the economy and Romney’s dreams to lift every boat of the top 1 percent of the country. A candidate who’s tossing out zingers and on the offensive and looking like he’s having fun is a candidate who’ll energize everyone in his party.

There’s no doubt the race has tightened up some in the last two weeks. I say it hasn’t tightened up because of the May jobs numbers or this Fed report or anything else like that. Those have obviously dinged Obama, but it’s really tightened up because only one candidate is campaigning—only one is punching. I’m a father myself, so I’ve nothing against Father’s Day. I just hope Sasha and Malia get him a spine.