Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who spent 2012 as a top White House surrogate telling an upbeat story about President Barack Obama's record, has turned his attention to pushing a different story: his own.
In public speeches and private remarks, O'Malley has begun to lay out a more assertive case for himself as a national leader in the Democratic Party, a narrative anchored in his Maryland record and in the state's performance during a deep national recession.
While O'Malley has done nothing to discourage widespread speculation that he's very seriously eyeing a 2016 presidential run, he faces long odds and a Rubik's Cube of political complications -- starting with the prospect of a potentially field-clearing bid by either outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden.
More than most fledgling candidates in embryonic presidential cycles, O'Malley has to move gingerly while at the same time recognizing that the 2016 clock began ticking on Nov. 7.
O'Malley has drawn attention through his day job by pursuing top-of-the-list liberal priorities such as gay marriage and gun reform. But as he begins to wrap up his second term, O'Malley's also loudly trumpeting lower-profile achievements as well: making Maryland's public schools the top-ranked in the nation, lowering the crime rate and cutting billions in state spending.
His overall theme, Democrats familiar with his pitch say, is results-oriented government -- how he and the state of Maryland steered through tough economic times by balancing necessary cuts with long-term investments in education, research and more. It's a story O'Malley has told often during his time as governor; it represents the best case for his leadership role within the party, whether as a presidential candidate or in any other capacity.
O'Malley's "state of the state" address Wednesday will expand on that narrative, according to his chief speechwriter, casting O'Malley as a public-sector Mr. Fix-It whose state weathered the economic downturn better than most. That's a modest message in the age of "The Audacity of Hope," but it's a model of steady competence the party may remember should it turn to a nominee of less superhuman proportions than, say, Clinton.
"We came together and made tough choices so that we'd come out of this recession stronger -- choices we made both around our own kitchen tables and through the common platform of our government," speechwriter Steve Rabin wrote in a preview of the speech online. "Did these choices work? Spoiler alert: We're #1 in education, #1 in innovation and #1 in regional jobs recovery."
In other words: this isn't just yet another Democratic governor, doing what any governor would do in a relatively prosperous state.
An O'Malley adviser said that more aggressively broadcasting his Maryland record was a natural next step for the governor, who's currently better known "as a loyal and persistent fighter for President Obama and an effective [Democratic Governors Association] chair."
"What [people] don't necessarily know is the story he has to tell about Maryland -- how in the toughest of times, he's delivered results. He was handed a nearly $2 billion structural deficit from his Republican predecessor and had to govern during a national recession. Those challenges don't necessarily set him apart from other governors -- how he handled them does," the adviser said. "He took them on by cutting government spending more than any administration in Maryland history and reducing the size of the executive branch to the smallest per capita level since 1973 -- all while maintaining the state's AAA bond rating and keeping core investments in priorities like education, job creation and public safety."
Said the adviser: "Together, all of this is a recipe for long-term economic growth and it's a success story that sets Maryland apart."
The governor has taken other steps to strengthen his national messaging. Lis Smith, the former Obama for America rapid response director, has joined O'Malley's political action committee as an adviser. The governor's office announced last week that Teddy Davis, a well-regarded spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, was moving cross-country to serve as O'Malley's new communications director in Annapolis.
O'Malley's themes aren't entirely new territory for the Democrat, who has fashioned himself as a solutions-oriented, data-driven politician since his days as mayor of Baltimore. Nor is it unusual for governors to embrace a "we're No. 1 !" message when the facts give them the opportunity.
But after O'Malley's intensely partisan rollout as an Obama surrogate and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, his recent appearances are a first look at how he might introduce himself as a national candidate in his own right - or simply as a national voice for Democrats in a post-Obama era.
And if a final decision on 2016 is a ways off, O'Malley happens to be staking out ground on issues certain to dominate the next national election: education, energy and deficits. He unveiled a wind energy proposal last week and talks insistently about a "balanced approach" to reining in spending.
In a speech earlier this month unveiling his 2014 budget, O'Malley explicitly contrasted Maryland's approach with the state of the federal government.
"Even though we've been able to apply a balanced approach here in Maryland, our national politics is still struggling with restoring this balanced approach in our nation's capital," he said on Jan. 16, taking a whack at "the hara kiri Congress down the street."
O'Malley spoke privately to the U.S. Conference of Mayors later that week, in an address Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called "a thematic speech that I think will probably be the kind of thing that somebody will do as they go around the country running for president."
"We know he is a person who is exceptionally effective at making government work," Rybak said, alluding to the CitiStat system O'Malley implemented as mayor of Baltimore to track public services.
"That's not necessarily going to win you a bunch of votes in the Iowa caucuses," Rybak acknowledged. "They don't know CitiStat as well. They care about getting results out of government, and I hope he can sell that."
O'Malley's all-about-results message would seem to concede from the outset that he's not a politician poised to overturn the political world, as Obama did -- and Clinton tried to do -- in 2008. He's a white male in an era in which both parties are increasingly preoccupied with diversity. He's a technocrat at heart in a party that's tilting left at the moment. O'Malley's first moment in national TV prime time, speaking to the Charlotte convention last summer, was widely judged to be a bit of a dud.
Yet if O'Malley has a path to the White House in 2016, it begins with making an argument now about why his experience as governor would qualify him to serve as president -- why his record is more than typical fare for a Democratic governor.
That means going beyond what the national press has largely covered as a legislative bidding war between O'Malley and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- another 2016 prospect -- as the two blue-state governors rack up legislative trophies for the Democratic base, from legalizing same-sex marriage to banning assault weapons.
Longtime O'Malley-watchers say the message of governing for results has long characterized his approach to politics, and it's no surprise that it would continue to serve as a framework for a next, more ambitious stage of his career.
"His whole thing in governing is to hold persons accountable -- his staff and citizens," said Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "He continues to talk about that, and he's very popular with our mayors, even now."
Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore, who was a top Democratic Leadership Council official when a youthful Mayor O'Malley made a splash at the centrist group, said O'Malley's policy orientation hearkens back to the late 1990s and the Democratic search for "politically viable ideas."
"He was really interested in social policy innovations -- all that New Democrat stuff about service delivery alternatives," Kilgore said. "The whole outcome-driven government was very much the rage back then. A lot of it was about how you completely turn government upside down to make it work in the information age."
"He was a pretty sincere, wonky kind of guy when it came to that sort of thing," Kilgore said. "People were talking about him running for president right after he got elected mayor -- I mean, it goes way back."
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