Gallup's latest analysis focuses on shifts since the spring in public perceptions of both candidates. In some, Romney has closed a large gap, especially on the "strong leader" question (although he is still seen as weaker than Obama by five points). But Obama has gained on two: taxes and healthcare. On taxes, Obama was behind Romney by four points a month ago; now he's ahead by 9 – a 13 point swing toward the president in one month. On healthcare, Obama was even with Romney a month ago; now he's nine points ahead. In terms of winning the debate, that's a big turn-around.
But here's what's staggering to me: on the deficit, Romney is ahead. The man pledging to slash taxes and increase military spending, while gutting Medicare only for the post-boomers … is actually seen as more credible than Obama. All of which simply reiterates what may come to be Obama's fatal, mortal decision not to embrace Bowles-Simpson, even as his party and Paul Ryan torpedoed it. Imagine if Obama were able to challenge Ryan directly, on the lines David Brooks notes today, and could say: I made the hard decision to cut the debt in a realistic bipartisan fashion, and your fixation on Ayn Rand killed it.
Obama, instead, ducked. If he loses this election, it will largely, in my view, be because of that. And if I were to offer a single piece of advice to the campaign, it would be to use the convention to declare that he would sign Bowles-Simpson as written if it came to his desk. He'd instantly own the fiscal center, isolate the GOP's extremism, and reaffirm his credibility on the deficit.
The paradigm can still be shifted. Obama can say he didn't embrace the original commission because the necessary majority in the Congressional committee couldn't be rustled up. He can openly and rightly blame Ryan for torpedoing the sanest, most practical debt reduction we have on the table. He can tell his own party that they have to tackle entitlement spending and using the Mediscare tactic is not worthy of the constructive change Obama promised four years ago. He can even say he regretted not going out on a limb – but he thought a grand bargain could be reached through negotiation instead. GOP fanaticism stopped it.
The reason – incredibly – that Obama has not done this is a dislike of the big defense cuts and queasiness over muddying the Medicare issue against Romney. This shouldn't matter. What matters is that Obama should declare his first priority on being re-elected would be a grand bargain on the lines of Bowles-Simpson. Force Romney to say no. Isolate him on his tax extremism and defense spending boom. Show you're more serious on entitlement reform than Ryan's ideological fantasies – because you're backing the most credible, practical option available. Re-capture that sliver of the middle that wants to know what Obama wants to do in his second term.
And make news. So far, most of the news Obama has made has been in exposing Romney. He's got the choice election he wanted (a huge strategic achievement) and he has successfuly defined the other party's proposals (ditto). Now he needs to offer the positive choice he represents: a real grand bargain on spending and taxes, immigration reform, infrastructure investment, and embrace of multicultural America. That's the missing piece. In my view, if it isn't fixed in Charlotte, the dynamics of this race in this economy are slowly working against him.
If he doesn't shift to a positive agenda on spending and taxes, in other words, he could well lose. And deserve to.
(Photo: In this handout provided by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama throws a football at Soldier Field following the NATO Summit working dinner on May 20, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. By Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images.)