The Tampa anti-climax gives the president a serious opening. He can bank on a vacuous speech by Romney, a series of brazen lies by Ryan, and a Mediscare campaign to rally his base and peel away some seniors from Romney – and hope that's enough, along with his GOTV operation. My own view is that this is not sufficient and if Obama thinks he can run a negative campaign from here on out, get his base out, and win, he's deluding himself. If he thinks all he needs is the same kind of empty slogans that Romney delivered, he needs a reality check. For his potential second term to be seen as something new, something offering a fresh start, something that can break through the partisan deadlock and get to real solutions to problems that can no longer be kicked down the road, then he has to do something bold.
Get up there and say: if a version of the Bowles-Simpson proposal comes to my desk that stays within its rough parameters and saves as much money, then I will sign it. I didn't before because the Congress killed it before it came to my desk, my own party was skittish on Medicare and entitlements, the Pentagon was panicking about the cuts, and Paul Ryan made sure that the GOP would not cooperate. Well, this time we have a chance to defeat Paul Ryan and get to advance Tom Coburn and other deficit-serious Republicans who will agree to the Grand Bargain we need. That will give us enough credibility with the bond markets to push through a second stimulus. In other words: a little fiscal push now, serious, shared sacrifice for the future. This is the most logical and potentially powerful way forward – for the US and the world.
If this is too much for his base – it would put clear distance between him and Pelosi – then he should, as a second option, unveil a clear plan for radical tax simplification and regulation reform. Both parties say they want to get rid of deductions and pull off a 1986-style reform of the tax code. This is in Bowles-Simpson, but it can be removed from the debt question and embraced as revenue neutral to make it more bipartisan of necessary. Everyone hates the current tax code, and its inherent benefits for those who can hire the most expensive accountants. There is no reason to duck it. Ditto a Gore-like commission to study how to get rid of any and all regulations that are anachronistic or over-reaching or too onerous for small business owners. Some of that is already under way. But leading with debt reduction, a new jobs bill, tax simplification and a rollback of unnecessary regulation of small business would change the dynamic of this race in ways nothing else will.
Yes, tell the real story of the last four years. Rebut the Republican fantasy Obama. But for Pete's sake, offer a new and realistic agenda: real progress on the debt; real tax reform; a second stimulus; full implementation of universal healthcare and a laser-like focus on cost controls, along with immigration reform that attracts the intelligent from the world over and relieves long-term illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. He can argue that the looming sequestration makes some kind of fiscal action necessary by January 1, and that he doesn't just want a place-holder but a new long-term plan. He can say the reckoning is coming – and he, unlike the GOP, has a plan to tackle it fairly.
I'm afraid he thinks he can win only by attacking Romney. He can't. He must offer his vision for radical, deep change. He must not run away from his first slogan: change we can believe in. He must say he is running to fulfill it against Republican obstructionism and a brutal global recession. He must run as who he is: not some leftist demagogue reiterating the slogans of a flailing candidate, Elizabeth Warren, but as a reasonable fellow dealing with an opposition gone mad in a world teetering on economic collapse and religious war.
And he has to make news. Embracing Bowles-Simpson for a second term would be news. It would highlight the utter fiscal unseriousness of Paul Ryan, and the 1981-style policies of Romney. It would win back the center. And it would, in my view, win the election. If he plays safe this week, which will be his instinct, or if the convention is a tired attack on Romney's wealth or aloofness, or if it reeks of class war or racial resentment, he will lose. If he takes a risk and embraces his own commission – and dares the GOP to support him on it, he could win big. Yes, I still think that's possible. The sheer weakness of the republican non-arguments last week – their gaping intellectual contradictions and cultural obsessions – gives the president an opportunity to inspire us now as he did four years ago. He told us then it wasn't going to be easy to change Washington. But by embracing Bowles-Simpson now, he will show he remains serious about that kind of radical change.
We'll see this week what he's made of. A serious change agent or a man desperate to keep his job at any costs? I know who I supported in 2008. Now comes the acid test: did he mean change or just say it?
(Photo: President Barack Obama shakes hands with supporters after speaking at a Grassroots Rally September 2, 2012 on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, Colorado. Obama discussed his plan to help the middle class, Obamacare's impact and the importance of the youth of America getting out to vote in the upcoming election. By Marc Piscotty/Getty Images.)