Sales Job

The Real Obama Needs to Fight Five GOP Myths About the Imaginary Obama

Clint Eastwood tussled with an invisible Obama onstage in Tampa, but next week Democrats need to do battle of their own against the GOP-built caricature of the president. From gutting welfare to Medicare lies, Michael Tomasky on five myths that need dispelling.

Mandel Ngan, AFP / Getty Images

Of all the great, near-great, and less-than-great tweets and remarks about the Clint Eastwood disaster, the most profound came from The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie: “This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.” The story of the whole week, indeed of more or less the whole last four or five years, is of Republicans and conservatives peddling to voters an imaginary Barack Obama. To their immense frustration, a lot of that effort hasn’t taken hold the way they’d have liked. But now it’s crunch time, and in the important states that will decide the election, every vote counts. So Obama and the Democrats should spend part of next week dispelling the five myths that have the potential to singe.

1) The “gutting welfare” myth. The Romney camp says these ads have produced tremendous responses from focus groups, and it’s easy to see why—the black president giving free stuff to the black moocher class, as they see it. It’s been pretty much universally nailed as a lie. But it’s still a safe bet that a majority of voters don’t yet know it’s a lie. It has the potential to do enormous damage. Obama, and especially trustworthy surrogates, starting with Bill Clinton, need to let people know forcefully next week that it’s false.

2) The Medicare lies. As I’ve noted many times, what Romney and Paul Ryan are doing here is disingenuous but clever and difficult to rebut. Any senior who’s been paying attention has probably been more or less sold on the idea that people over 55 have nothing to worry about. That isn’t so, as I have written, but the explanation for why is fairly complicated. The lower-hanging fruit is not the Ryan plan but the Romney plan, and Romney, after all, is the nominee. As I explained Thursday, if Romney is going to keep the four big promises he’s made, Medicare is going to get whacked. Not in the 2030s, but during President Romney’s first term. That needn’t be too hard to explain. And Obama should throw in that Real Obama, as opposed to Imaginary Obama, has already saved today’s seniors money by closing the doughnut hole and making certain key preventive-care services for seniors in traditional Medicare free (yes, free).

That’s a word most people grasp pretty easily, I should think.

3) Obama believes that jobs come from government. This myth is potentially really harmful to Obama, as it fits into various preconceived notions and a lot of claptrap people have been hearing for the last four years. The Real Obama chart, based on statistics, rebuts all that pretty instantly. The public sector grew 4 percent under George W. Bush and has shrunk by 3 percent under Obama, and private-sector hiring under Obama is stronger than under Bush. Again, such information may be better coming from Clinton, or even Charlie Crist, than Obama himself, but the narrative that Obama wants us all to suckle at the public teat all our lives can’t go unanswered.

4) The stimulus was a failure. Now we’re getting into more controversial territory, and the Obama team probably won’t have the guts to take this on. It should. We can assume that Chicago has been reading The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald’s excellent book arguing that the stimulus largely worked. Grunwald offers a synopsis of the book in a Foreign Policy piece. The big mistake Obama and his people made at the time was promising more than the stimulus delivered. But it did deliver. The claims here must be specific and precise and true, so that when reporters go out to see the new alternative-energy facility in Colorado built with stimulus funds, they’ll report that by gum it exists.

5) Obama is a nice kid in over his head. Smacking this down may be the most important of all. This is the famous “permission” line, that is, giving 2008 Obama supporters permission to walk away without feeling guilty. It’s aimed straight at undecided voters, whereas most of the Republicans’ other nonsense is directed to their base. Obama needs a strong troika here: “I don’t think I was in over my head when I announced my support for marriage equality, which my advisers told me was a risky thing to do and I shouldn’t go there. I don’t think I was in over my head when we passed the most meaningful legislation to protect consumers since the New Deal. And I humbly suggest that I wasn’t in over my head on May 1, 2011, when I ordered the mission on which our brave SEALs got Osama bin Laden.” He’ll bring down the house, and the line would be replayed a thousand times.

He should also say: The people who are in over their heads are the food-fighting Republicans in Congress. Nearly twice as many Americans place “a lot” of blame on Congress for our problems as the administration, according to a new Pew poll. That’s a whipping post. He should whip it.

Most moderate voters, I think, just don’t buy most of the nonsense the right wing peddles about Obama. But Obama, Lord knows, is far from perfect, and the economy is still a long way from healthy, so not all conservative claims about him are entirely incredible. He needs to fight for those undecideds, and he needs to do it with a little swagger to signal that he isn’t afraid of the bullies. And if he does, the bullies will whimper, as bullies who’ve been kicked back always do.