On Brooks’ advice for Romney

by Ryan Streeter on October 8, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Arthur Brooks’ column in the WSJ is good for all the reasons one finds in the piece…and for one that he implies but doesn’t explicitly say: namely, the culture of enterprise and self-determination that made America great was in decline before Obama, but Obama has made things worse. He’s made them worse through the policy choices he has made, but perhaps more importantly, by ignoring or failing to see what is wrong in America.

I think this is important. Obama regularly blames Bush, as we all know. And for good reason, since lots of Americans have bought that line. But Romney has a chance to show how many of the problems we face did in fact start before Obama – enough so that any President worth electing would have made his primary focus on reversing them. Counter Bill Clinton’s apology for Obama by showing that the issue isn’t not having had enough time to fix the problems that such a historic recession left us, but showing that Obama has missed the key underlying trends all along that Romney and others see. Show that Obama has been working on window dressings while the house is burning down.

Romney has the opportunity to cast himself as a man of the era, big enough for the challenges we face, running against a man who has proven over and over again the past four years that he doesn’t understand the scope of the challenges facing the country. This will likely be the best strategy for reaching that narrow slice of independents and undecided voters who will swing the vote in the key states.

Arthur points out social mobility from the bottom up fell by a third from 1995 to 2005, compared to the decade from 1980 to 1990. He writes:

Think of America in 2012 as an apartment building. In the penthouse, people are living pretty well—while the folks in the lower floors are getting flooded out. Unfortunately, the elevator hardly works anymore.

He proposes that Romney focus on communicating how putting students first in education, getting bureaucracy out of the way of entrepreneurs and job creators, and reminding Americans about what a culture of family and work requires will all reverse trends that threaten America’s future prosperity. I think that all makes sense. Romney should take on those things. But he needs to do so in the way that Arthur and those like him do: by showing that he understands that upward mobility is critical, that he “gets” what it’s like to be stuck on the broken elevator on the 2nd floor, and why he won’t just do things better than Obama, but that he’ll focus on all the real problems Obama failed to see or failed to take seriously.