President Barack Obama has been the target of much obloquy recently for his perceived lack of a second-term agenda, including from members of his own party.

The criticism prompted Obama’s campaign to release a 20-page pamphlet laying out the president’s future policy proposals this week, titled “The New Economic Patriotism.” But the glossy handout still left many unimpressed, like A.B. Stoddard, a columnist for The Hill. Stoddard opined that the pamphlet’s hackneyed ideas, such as touting the benefits of Obamacare or investing in domestic energy, provided a half-hearted answer to calls for more specifics.

“It’s not just that the plan is the first voters have heard of any Obama has for his second term — two weeks before Election Day — but that the brochure is about as cheesy a cheap shot as they come,” Stoddard wrote.

Why would the president wait so long before offering a more concrete second-term agenda? It’s all about strategy.

In the research paper “Issue Framing and Engagement: Rhetorical Strategy in Public Policy Debates,” Jennifer Jerit asserts that political opponents of policy changes often have a much simpler task than proponents of changes. While proponents of new policy proposals have to convince the American public of the unsustainability of the status quo and the benefits of their proposed changes, their opponents must simply cast doubt on the new proposals.

Negative arguments tend to be quite effective in making voters risk averse. Jerit cites scholars Cobb and Kuklinski, who explained that, ‘‘One argument against a proposal [speaks] more loudly than several in support.’’

When one analyzes the use of these strategies in the 2012 presidential race, the contours of the debate quickly emerge. Republican challenger Mitt Romney is offering a bold set of policy proposals to address the nation’s fiscal and economic challenges, while the incumbent Obama — who doesn’t necessarily need to outline a new agenda — is attempting to portray the proposed changes as “reckless” and out-of-touch with middle-income Americans.

These strategies were used ad nauseum in the presidential debates, with Obama’s pushback to Romney’s tax plan perhaps being the most common example. Romney pitched his plan to cut marginal income tax rates by 20 percent across-the-board as vital to sparkplugging a sluggish economy, but Obama countered that the tax plan would balloon the deficit and favor top earners.

But Obama might have made a miscalculation. “Engagement” has the potential to be as equally effective a strategy as negative opposition arguments, and it’s one Romney has used rather adroitly. Jerit defines engagement as “when opposing elites talk about the same considerations… in a dialogue.” Her research found that more engagement, particularly on issues owned by the other party, would have aided former President Bill Clinton more in his unsuccessful push for healthcare reform.

Romney took it a step further than just a dialogue in the debates, answering attacks on his proposals by challenging the president on issues typically owned by Obama and the Democrats. Although Romney knew that the president was seen as a post-partisan figure in his 2008 run and that Democrats tend to have an advantage on education issues, Romney was ready with a direct response when Obama charged that the Republican’s deficit reduction plan would slash education funding. He promoted his ability to work with Democratic legislators as governor to maintain a top-tier education system in Massachusetts, a not-so-subtle jab at Obama’s failure to reach a deal with a Congressional Republicans on deficit reduction.

Voters crave talk of bipartisanship and compromise in today’s polarized political climate, and the strategy has paid off for Romney in polls. A Pew Research Center poll, conducted after the first debate, found that Romney had narrowed a 17 percentage point gap with Obama on who is more willing to work with leaders across the aisle to just three points. Romney is tied with Obama or has a slight lead overall in all the head-to-head presidential polls nationally.

The presidential race is obviously still too close to call, and it’s difficult to ascertain which strategy will win out in the end. But the battle lines are well established.


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