Obama under pressure to spell out his agenda for a second term

President Obama is taking heat from his Republican rivals and some members of his own party for being vague about his agenda for a second term. 

On Thursday, Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan told a crowd at a campaign event in Florida that Obama “is not telling you what his second-term plan would be.”

“He's not saying that he is offering anything new,” the Wisconsin lawmaker said during a town hall. “All he is offering is four more years of the same.”

Republicans are using the critique to parry Democratic attacks against Romney’s tax-reform plan, but they aren’t the only ones questioning what Obama’s priorities would be on Day One of term two.

“What would make my heart leap is to see him offer a forward-looking speech that encompasses all the things that he’s been talking about in little bits into a big thematic package, and one, big, second-term-agenda speech,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.

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The president, meanwhile, has repeatedly made the case that Romney has no real plan to govern the country, and has taken to calling his rival’s platform a “sketchy deal.”

Campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher disputed the charge that Obama isn’t talking details, noting he has promised to double exports, cut oil imports in half and hire 100,000 new math and science teachers, among other second-term priorities. 

“If Mitt Romney wants to talk about plans, he might want to start with coming up with some of his own,” Fetcher said.

Neither candidate’s platform is without concrete promises. Romney often speaks about his five-point plan for spurring economic growth, saying it would create 12 million jobs in four years.

But both men’s pledges tend to be high on aspiration and low on detail. On the stump, they spend more time portraying desirable destinations rather than outlining their maps for how to get there.

The candidates have a tricky needle to thread: were they to freight their stump speeches with policy minutiae and statistics, they would risk losing voters interested in hearing their visions for the country.

As the incumbent, Obama’s challenge comes with an extra twist.

“The incumbent is always in this little trap of ‘what can you promise?’” said Martin Sweet, an assistant visiting professor of political science at Northwestern University. “Anything he talks about, he is going to get slammed on: ‘Why didn’t you do this before?’”

The president might have good reason to temper his promises, considering the difficulties he’s had enacting his agenda. A candidate who in 2008 said comprehensive immigration reform would be a first-term priority must now persuade voters that things would be different the second time around.

“The failure of President Obama to achieve comprehensive immigration reform basically has to be attributed to the fact that he had reservations as to whether or not he would get Congress to approve it,” said Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates stronger controls on immigration. “That same situation could well pertain in the next Congress.”

And with any contentious issue, candidates who offer exact details face the risk of losing as many voters as they excite.

Bill Galston, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Obama has “reasons not to talk about those agenda items that most people assume are generally in his sights,” such as the charged topic of immigration reform.

“It is widely assumed that the president wants to push for comprehensive immigration reform in his second term. But, in the second debate, he conspicuously declined a couple of open-door opportunities to say so,” Galston noted.

Romney critics charge that he has failed to grapple with the more electorally problematic details of his headline proposals. The most obvious example is the significant tax cuts that the Republican has promised to enact without adding to the deficit or reducing the tax share paid by the wealthy. 

In the second presidential debate on Tuesday, Romney proposed one measure that could help attain this goal: capping itemized deductions at $25,000. But an initial analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that such a cap would be insufficient to pay for tax cuts on the scale that Romney is proposing.

“Romney hasn’t had the same sort of scrutiny given to his ideas simply because he’s not the sitting president,” Rebecca Thiess of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute told The Hill. 

For Obama, criticism comes from both flanks. Republicans insist his true plans are more radical than the American people would support, while some to Obama’s left fear he is deploying a populist rhetoric that would give way to a more compromising approach after the election.

“The president won’t talk about what he plans for a second term because most Americans would view it as extremist,” said Republican strategist Ken Lundberg. “As such, the campaign’s theme has been reduced to attacks on Mitt Romney and not much more.”

Adam Green, a co-founder of the left-wing Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Romney would be “an unmitigated disaster as president,” but also suggested that Obama is being disingenuous in presenting himself as a take-no-prisoners defender of Social Security and Medicare benefits.

“His subtle language is that he won’t ‘slash’ benefits. But what he means is, ‘I will cut benefits, I just won’t do so to the extent that the Republicans will,’ ” Green said.

But even Obama supporters who would like a more concrete agenda say it would be disastrous for his campaign if he were to over-promise to a weary electorate.

“He has to be careful about talking to voters about some things that they believe are unachievable,” Simmons said. “The last few years have been sobering. People are skeptical of big promises.”