If the theme of last week’s Republican National Convention was the manipulative sloganeering of “We Build It ,” then the theme of this week’s Democratic National Convention has been “We’re Manufacturing It”—and “We’re Going to Manufacture a Whole Lot More.”
That’s a distinct message, not just from Mitt Romney’s empty rhetoric but from the empty rhetoric of most economic appeals in most elections.
In a country that would have a middle class, the point at which a candidate gets serious about job creation is the point at which he or she gets specific about manufacturing renewal and industrial policy. As the Alliance for American Manufacturing  keeps reminding us, “an innovative and growing manufacturing base is vital to America’s economic and national security, as well as to providing good jobs for future generations.”
To be heard by voters, a candidate must move past wide-angle claims about renewing the economy or getting out of its way, and toward a specific commitment to making things.
Barack Obama did some of that Thursday night, as part of an address carefully constructed  to contrast his re-election candidacy with that of his Republican challenger. The speech  touched the important themes of that re-election campaign. But the critical section, as will come as no surprise, was the one where Obama made the case for himself as a job creator. That might just make him a two-term president—if he was listening not just to his speech but to the others delivered on the final night of the Democratic National Convention that renominated him.
Obama made a big promise, and it was the right one.
At a convention where he needed to explain what he would do with a second term, Obama pledged to create 1 million new manufacturing jobs by 2016 and to double exports by 2014.
“After a decade of decline, this country created over half-a-million manufacturing jobs in the last two and a half years,” Obama declared, as he began to outline his second-term agenda. “And now you have a choice: we can give more tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas, or we can start rewarding companies that open new plants and train new workers and create new jobs here, in the United States of America. We can help big factories and small businesses double their exports, and if we choose this path, we can create a million new manufacturing jobs in the next four years. You can make that happen. You can choose that future.”
Focusing on manufacturing jobs is smart politics in 2012 , when a handful of what used to be referred to as “industrial states”—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, yes, but also states such as Colorado and North Carolina—will play a critical role in deciding the race between Obama and Mitt Romney.
Romney’s 2009 argument that America should “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt ” was an essential theme of this week’s Democratic convention, as was the story of the renewal that followed upon the Obama administration’s investment in an ailing auto industry.
Speaker after speaker, auto workers from Toledo, union leaders from Detroit, members of Congress from Wisconsin, actresses from Hollywood and the vice president of the United States  told the crowd: “Conviction. Resolve. Barack Obama. That’s what saved the American automobile industry.”
But it fell to former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to bring the argument home. And she did the job with an address that electrified the convention.
Recounting how hard times hit an already battered auto industry in the last days of George Bush’s neglectful presidency, Granholm recalled ,”When the financial crisis hit, things got a lot worse—and fast. The entire auto industry, and the lives of over one million hard-working Americans, teetered on the edge of collapse; and with it, the whole manufacturing sector. We looked everywhere for help. Almost nobody had the guts to help us—not the banks, not the private investors and not Bain capital. Then, in 2009, the cavalry arrived: our new president, Barack Obama!”
Obama “organized a rescue, made the tough calls and saved the American auto industry,” Granholm shouted. “Mitt Romney saw the same crisis and you know what he said: “Let Detroit go bankrupt.”
Dismissing Romney as an out-of-touch car collector who “loves our cars so much [that] they have their own elevator,” Granholm argued that:
“In Romney’s world, the cars get the elevator; the workers get the shaft. Mitt Romney says his business experience qualifies him to be president. Sure, he’s made lots of money. Good for him. But how did he make that fortune, and at whose expense?”
“Too often, he made it at the expense of middle-class Americans. Year after year, it was profit before people. President Obama? With the auto rescue, he saved more than one million middle-class jobs all across America. In Colorado, the auto rescue saved more than 9,800 jobs! In Virginia, more than 19,000 jobs! In North Carolina, more than 25,000! Wisconsin: more than 28,000 jobs! Pennsylvania: more than 34,000! Florida: more than 35,000! Ohio: more than 150,000! And in the great state of Michigan? President Obama helped save 211,000 good American jobs.”
As Granholm worked her way around the map of the United States, the delegation rose until the entire hall was standing, cheering with wild enthusiasm as she shorted: “All across America, autos are back! Manufacturing is rebounding! Why? Because when Mitt Romney said ‘Let Detroit go bankrupt,’ who took the wheel? Barack Obama! When America was losing 750,000 jobs per month, who gave us a lift? Barack Obama! When American markets broke down, who jump-started the engine? Barack Obama! And when America needed it most, who got us rolling again on the road to recovery? Barack Obama!”
Granholm’s old-school oratory was pitch-perfect for the hall, and it will go over well in the union halls of Flint and Toledo and Janesville. But Obama won’t get re-elected on the strength of oratory, or the auto bailout or even of the promise of a manufacturing boom.
American manufacturing workers have lost a lot of confidence in their leaders, Republicans and Democrats, over the last two decades. Since Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich worked together in 1993 to enact the Wall Street–friendly but Main Street–toxic North American Free Trade Act , close to 50,000 factories were shuttered, almost 10 million manufacturing jobs were lost.
Yet, Obama continues to embrace the failed trade policies of the past. He even bragged in his speech that “I have signed trade agreements.” And he suggested that those agreements “are helping our companies sell more goods to millions of new customers.” But Wall Street–defined free-trade policies still put Americans out of work while undermining worker protections, environmental regulations and local democracy in nations around the world.
Nothing undermine a manufacturing recovery more than that misguided approach. And nothing will undermine Obama’s re-election candidacy more than the creeping suspicion that he might not be all in for American manufacturing.
Obama retains far too much of the Clintonian deference to Wall Street, a deference that gave this country NAFTA, Permanent Most-Favored Nation Trading Status for China and a host of policies that encourage the offshoring of jobs.
That’s why Obama should have been listening to the other speakers last night, speakers like Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, a steady opponent of low-road trade deals that put the interests of Bain Capitalists ahead of factory workers. Baldwin’s not anti-trade. But she is explicitly committed to a fair-trade agenda  that respects labor rights, environmental standards and democracy in the United States and its trading partners. That’s radically different that thoughtless support for free-trade policies that have as their first priority the enrichment of stockholders and speculators.
Decrying offshoring, and arguing for much tougher bargaining with China, Baldwin told the convention “an economy built to last says ‘Made in America’ on the label” and she was right. So, too, was Congressman Xavier Becerra, who said, “If you believe in America, you invest in America.… It’s not responsible to reward companies that ship American jobs overseas with more tax loopholes.”
Obama has said that, too. But he has not gone to the mat on the issue, and he certainly has not pivoted away from the free-trade consensus of Bill Clinton and George Bush.
Indeed, at the start of Obama’s presidency, Becerra’s name turned up on the list of prospects for the position of US Trade Representative. Wall Street objected because Becerra’s Congressional record was that of a fair trader, not a free trader. And because of his tendency to utter lines like the opener for his Thursday night speech: “The American dream—it’s built not with words or speeches but from sweat and tears. Its heart and soul reside not in the boardrooms on Wall Street, but in the shops and factories on Main Street.”
Becerra dropped out of the running.
So the job went to Ron Kirk, a NAFTA supporter and free-trade enthusiast. 
President Obama has to do better than that. And he has to communicate during the course of this campaign that he understands America needs a new approach to trade, America needs to stop encouraging outsourcing and America needs to get serious about developing the sort of industrial policies that have kept countries like Germany working.
Obama talked the talk Thursday night. He had to do that, and he did that well.
But winning in 2012 is going to be about more than talk. Obama has to walk the walk. He has to make this promise of industrial renewal, of a million new manufacturing jobs, real.
If he does, Barack Obama will bridge the confidence gap that has developed (with some justification) developed in the factory towns of this country’s industrial states. And he will be re-elected. Just as importantly for the republic, he will start that second term with a mandate not just to save ailing industries but to discard the failed trade and manufacturing policies that cause the ailments.
Obama said in his speech that voters will this year have to “choose between two different paths for America.” He was right. The choice between an Obama-Biden future and a Romney-Ryan future is stark.
But Obama must also choose between a bipartisan consensus that works only for speculators and a new way that will work for workers. His speech was a start. How he finishes it will decide the 2012 campaign, and the future of all the Flints and Toledos and Janesvilles that are waiting for a president who really does worry more about Main Street than Wall Street.