By MARSHA MERCER
Unemployment is dropping, and President Barack Obama’s job approval rating has edged above 50 percent – welcome news for his re-election bid.
But here’s another number that’s hazardous: 54. That’s the percentage of Americans who don’t have a clear idea what Obama would do in a second term. Only 43 percent have a clear idea, according to a New York Times-CBS News poll last month.
One of the things presidents do, wrote the late journalist R.W. Apple Jr., is “redefine what people mean when they say `American values,’ selecting some strands from the national experience and rejecting others, reweaving them into a new fabric and exhorting the people to clothe themselves in it.”
Apple’s analysis ran in The New York Times on Jan. 20, 1989, the day President George H.W. Bush was inaugurated. The process of redefining American values “begins in earnest on the day the presidential baton is passed,” Apple wrote.
Bush the elder never was good at what he dismissed as “the vision thing.” His four years in the White House had lofty peaks and low valleys, and he lost the White House largely because he couldn’t tell the story of where he wanted to lead the country as well as the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
In the current campaign, the Republican presidential hopefuls opine endlessly about the need to restore American values. They promise less government and more freedom, a formula that worked for Ronald Reagan. But will it again?
Rick Santorum was the week’s victor times three, sweeping contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. He doesn’t just want to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney but to Obama, whom Santorum accuses of trying to turn America into France. And he doesn’t mean we’re headed for high fashion and great food.
The November election will be a referendum on Obama’s policies and on his vision. If Romney is the Republican nominee, Obama will need to distinguish his American values from those of the “Massachusetts moderate” whose policies were similar.
Many Obama voters wonder what happened to the Obama who articulated American values so well at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that he leapfrogged Hillary Clinton and was elected president just four years later.
In 2004, Obama addressed those who would divide the country. “Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
As president, Obama has not redefined American values so much as he has provoked their reassessment. He has just begun telling the story of where he would lead the country in a second term.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” he said in his State of the Union address.
Obama gets another opportunity to outline his vision Monday when he sends his fiscal 2013 budget to Congress. The president’s budget routinely is dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, but it’s his chance to put his money where his priorities are, even in a year that’s more about belt-tightening than expanding.
Obama has pitted himself against an unpopular Congress; only 10 percent approve of the way Congress handles itself, according to a a Gallup poll this week. He is resurrecting proposals Congress has already rejected, including raising taxes on millionaires and spending more on infrastructure.
No presidential candidate, incumbent or not, wants to receive the harsh criticism columnist George Will leveled at Vice President Bush when Bush was running for president: “He does not say why he wants to be there, so the public does not know why it should care if he gets his way.”
Shortly after he took office, Obama set the standard for his own presidency.
“If I don’t have this done in three years, then this is going to be a one-term proposition,” the new president told NBC’s Matt Lauer.
Obama’s job in the next few months is to convince voters that he -- and his American values -- deserve more time.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.