Note: This is a fictitious account of a conversation among recently defeated French president Nicholas Sarkozy, President Obama, and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney that may have salience for the 2012 election.
In a conference call with President Obama and Mitt Romney following his failed reelection effort, French President Nicholas Sarkozy shared several highlights he felt might resonate with the President, whom he knows personally, and with Romney, the opponent who aspires to replace him. Sarkozy said, “My greatest single failure was to have forgotten there is a human dimension to policy formulation and application.” He also admitted to pandering on immigration and culture-war issues. “If anything”, he continued, “I was guilty of hubris and a strongly held belief that as president my austerity measures offered the best mix of policy options to address weak growth and our budget deficit. The voters here roundly rejected my one-size-fits-all approach.
We here in Paris are following the American presidential campaign with considerable interest Sarkozy said and cautioned both men against creating economic, fiscal, and social policies in a vacuum or, worse, entertaining only those ideas that resonate with key financial supporters or the more extreme elements of their base. Such narrow accountability increases the likelihood you as a candidate will pay a price, perhaps even lose the election.
Continuing, Sarkozy noted that Americans might not be as volatile toward government as many are in Europe but everything is relative. Understand that there are limits to voters’ patience and a forced diet of austerity, even in the U.S. Sarkozy admitted his mistakes would be analyzed ad nauseum and chose not to dwell on them.
His real purpose was to share “lessons learned.” The soon-to-be ex-president of France suggested there are worrisome parallels, for example, between his campaign tactics and those of the Romney campaign. Inconsistency on important issues may be acceptable to your base; they may be more forgiving. However, in the general campaign, your inconsistencies can become your worst nightmare: they return to haunt you and can thwart momentum. Moreover, they embolden your opponent.
And then, Sarkozy focused on a major purpose of the call: economic policy. “America is not Europe,” he said and went on to caution against a severe, wholesale shift to austerity measures that could prolong, unnecessarily, the U.S. recovery and further concentrate the misery most Americans feel. The measures contained in the Ryan budget, and adopted by the Romney campaign, are unbalanced and only the middle class and the poor, the elderly, and youth bear the brunt of the impact. There needs to be a course correction, he noted.
Romney, not one to take advice easily, especially on economic issues, differed and launched into a defense of the Ryan plan and an explication of his business background and what he viewed as the parallels between his successes in turning around businesses and the success he feels he can achieve in restoring the American economy. Before Sarkozy could interject, Romney excused himself and dropped out of the call.
Obama, ever the patient listener, wanted to hear more. Sarkozy suggested that the President’s approach was more balanced; that it proposed to share the pain with those who had captured the lion’s share of the wealth created by the American economy for the past several decades. As large and as complex as the U.S. economy is, there have to be new sources of revenue outside the middle class and more public spending to increase demand.
Working class Americans are feeling embattled, disconnected, and desperate. Moreover, they feel they have little left to give beyond their current level of subsistence and even that is being demanded of them if the Ryan budget becomes the blueprint for a Romney administration. Pushback is inevitable.
Trading on their friendship, Sarkozy had further words of advice for the President.
Spend less time trying to inspire. You are a known quantity now. Instead, put a stake in the ground and declare that the debt is not the paramount issue of our times. Growth and job creation are. Outline the specific steps you are prepared to take to generate new revenue, lower defense spending; incentivize real, not mythical, job creators to invest in the American worker. You need to reconnect with Americans, especially whites without college degrees and a large percentage of independents. You are not there yet.
In other words, shift the terms of the (campaign) debate from the national debt and austerity to a larger priority: factors that stimulate economic growth and job creation. You are still playing by Republican rules.
Set some benchmarks for the economy (unemployment levels, economic growth goals, manufacturing jobs created) and launch a national dialogue on them as you did in 2008. Invite the Republicans to attack you. In fact, welcome their attacks and force Romney to justify his opposition beyond his vague generalities.
To many white males and independents, you are still aloof. This is a perception you can change. Give the voters a reason to vote for you and not just against Romney. He is a weak candidate and your current approach of inciting fear of him elevates him to a stature he had not earned.
Americans well understand that the financialization of the economy brought about the economic calamity they have experienced the last three years. They need to know your approach to Wall Street is not laced with the ambiguity of calling them out (insincerely) while discreetly hitting them up for campaign contributions. Although the “Street’s” CEOs have substantially increased their profits and bonuses during your presidency, accept the fact they do not like you. They may prefer a Laissez faire presidency when it comes to relations with the White House but the likelihood is they would respect a strong presidency. You have yet to choose if you prefer to be liked or respected.
Engage your opponent and Mitch McConnell and John Boehner on two key rhetorical points that are GOP favorites. Dare them to define the “job creators” they are loath to tax. Follow up regularly on this.
Second, Romney, McConnell, Boehner, Ryan, and Cantor declare as an article of faith that the U.S. is an overly regulated society. They also maintain that federal regulations under your presidency have stifled the growth potential of American business. You give them a pass on this false assertion. Refer them to a World Bank “Ease of Doing Business Index” where economies are ranked on their ease of doing business from 1 – 183. A high ranking on the ease of doing business means the regulatory environment is more conducive to the starting and operation of a local firm. Point out that in the rankings for all economies benchmarked to June 2011, the U.S. was ranked number l among the top five large countries ranked for ease of doing business. It was ranked number 4 among the top five high-income countries ranked for ease of doing business, and number 4 among all countries ranked for ease of doing business.
Moreover, a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study found no particular increase in the regulatory burden by comparison with the preceding Bush Administration (Bloomberg News, “Obama Wrote 5% Fewer Rules Than Bush”, October 25, 2011).
Concluding their conversation, Sarkozy told the President he is admired, respected, and loved by Europeans throughout the continent. Many are still inspired by his example and want to see him reelected in November. They also believe you should be tougher with Republicans and right-wing conservatives than he is.
Therefore, do not let polls reporting a comfortable point spread over Romney lull him into a little complacency. He might consider running as the underdog because the Republicans will wage a bitter struggle to frighten more voters into voting against him than for their guy. That is their primary goal in raising a billion dollars to trash your presidency and denigrate you personally.
The unmistakable message from Sarkozy was that human nature in politics can exact a terrible toll upon elected leadership that is fundamentally disconnected from the lives and (mis)fortunes of their electorate. Sarkozy was just the latest victim.
Author’s note: This conversation among Nicholas Sarkozy, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney was fictitious. It presupposes parallels between the recent French elections and the 2012 election in the U.S. with regard to a policy approach of strict austerity to fix weak economic growth and job creation. The author envisions a dialogue between two members of a small but select fraternity of world leaders and one who aspires to membership. The conversation, although hypothetical, would be private and not out of the ordinary.