WASHINGTON, DC – A presidential reelection campaign needs three key elements: a defense of the incumbent’s record, a successful effort to define the opposition and a compelling vision of a second term.
President Obama may well celebrate a second term in Chicago next month, but the conventional wisdom underestimates the difficulty he faces, as his campaign has distinct problems with all three elements.
His defense of his record is exceptionally weak, his effort to define Mitt Romney is nearly exhausted, and his vision for the next four years — perhaps the most important — has been largely missing from his effort this year.
Defense of the incumbent’s record
Four years ago, Obama expressed great confidence that he would be running amid renewed prosperity; he famously told Matt Lauer, “One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I’ve got four years…If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.”
In February 2009, even most Republicans would probably have predicted that by 2012, the country would be feeling much more prosperous, with much lower unemployment.
Friday’s jobs report brought much-needed good news, with the 114,000 new jobs in the payroll survey meeting economists’ expectations and bringing unemployment down to 7.8% — but that was fueled by 582,000 part-time jobs. GDP growth is at a meager 1.3%, gasoline is averaging $3.78 per gallon nationally and the foreclosure rate is only slightly below 2011’s 17-year peak.
Any fan of Obama who tells you he expected the country to be in this condition at this moment is either lying to you or lying to themselves.
Still, Obama’s poll numbers have overcome the economic gloom for much of the year, because many Americans concluded he was doing the best he could after stepping into a bad situation. Probably the single most effective line of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte was Bill Clinton’s declaration, “no President — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
It’s one thing to express a resigned acceptance about the state of the economy to a pollster months or weeks away from Election Day; it’s another to affirmatively embrace four more years of the same economic policies, and accept the risk of four more years of similar results, inside the voting booth.
Paul Solman, the business and economics editor for PBS’s “NewsHour,” believes that the long-term unemployed — those who have stopped looking for a year or more, but say they want a job, a figure reaching about 7 million — should be included in the public definition of unemployed, as should the “discouraged workers,” those looking for work sometime in the past year but has stopped looking for work.
Throw in those working part-time who want full-time work and cannot find it, and our calculation of America’s “unemployed” booms from 12.1 million to an ungodly 27 million. As we approach the day of decision, Americans may look the scale of continuing economic pain and wonder if Clinton was right, that this is really the best anyone could reasonably expect.
Defining the opposition
For much of the year the Obama campaign excelled at this, perhaps better than any other incumbent presidential campaign before. But they and their SuperPAC allies may be victims of their own success in this area. By running ads painting such an unappealing, monstrous portrait of Romney — callous, uncaring, incompetent, selfish — they set the lowest of bars for the Republican nominee when he walked onto the debate stage Wednesday night.
Once Romney came across as knowledgeable, clear and deeply concerned about the state of the country, the entire vilification campaign of summer and early fall looked shaky and less convincing. The man standing before the country didn’t match the Gordon-Gekko-meets-Thurston-Howell-III caricature at all.
After this week’s debate, millions of Democrats were left wondering about the attack lines left unused by the President — why didn’t he mention Romney’s “47%” remark, or the layoffs at companies under Bain Capital or the years of tax returns that the GOP nominee hasn’t released?
But Obama had two good reasons to hesitate. One of the factors helping Obama overcome the lousy economy is most Americans’ sense that he is a decent, likeable, good-natured man. Obama often wisely let allies and surrogates act as his most relentless attack dogs.
It is one thing to attack a man in the now-ubiquitous, incessant form of television attack ads, with the scathing demonization tied to the aspiring national leader by only the rote declaration that “I approved this message”; it is another to do so to his face, with 60 million people watching.
Another reason to hesitate — and something to watch for in the remaining Romney-Obama debates — is the risk that Romney might deftly refute the criticism by asking why an incumbent’s presidential campaign, during a time of war and economic pain, is so obsessed with tax returns from years ago.
Negative attacks on Romney have taken Obama’s reelection hopes far, but they’ve probably taken him as far as they can go.
Offering a compelling vision for the second term
This is usually one of the most challenging aspects for an incumbent, because he needs some reasonable explanation as to why each big proposal or idea wasn’t achieved in the first term.
There’s some evidence that this is Obama’s strongest area, when he chooses to flex those muscles; as Emily Ekins, the director of polling for the Reason Foundation, pointed out to me, in one survey Obama actually outscored Romney by 9% points on which candidate has “vision for a successful future.”
The most uplifting portions of Obama’s speeches from about 2007 to about late 2009 were his descriptions of the America to come: one where every child is getting a quality education, where every college student can get a diploma without crushing debt and then step into a good job.
By “asking” the wealthy to pay “a little bit more” — somehow the IRS never appears in these happy visions — a plethora of new “investments” keep America competitive in the global economy, and we zip along on high-speed rails and in fuel-efficient cars produced by General Motors, with a shiny infrastructure replacing perpetually-cited “crumbling roads and bridges.”
Obama’s problem is that after four years on the job, that ideal America doesn’t seem any closer, and might even seem further away than in 2008. He also doesn’t talk about that vision as much as he used to.
Some of that may be because the public — or perhaps even Obama himself — doubts he’ll be able to deliver much in the coming years. Obama’s first term can be neatly divided into two halves. The first, before the midterms, saw Obama passing a slew of big legislative initiatives: the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank financial reform.
But the public largely disliked or was indifferent to those proposals, generating the huge GOP comeback in the 2010 midterms. The second half of Obama’s term, dealing with a GOP-controlled House, showcased Washington stuck in neutral, unable to push policy to the left or right. A persistent cliché is that Americans like divided government, but that theory applied better during the peace and prosperity from 1994 to 2000 under President Clinton and a GOP Congress. When the country is at war and struggling, the arguments of a divided Washington sound like the grinding of gears.
Barring some dramatic change in the outlook for (often-gerrymandered) House races, Obama will still be dealing with Speaker John Boehner in January 2013. Obama has suggested that his reelection could “pop the blister” of partisan passions in Washington, but that theory envisions Republicans capitulating and accepting tax increases, an immigration bill they deem amnesty, and so on.
So the choice before Americans is a rerun of the gridlock of the past two years, or something different — a Republican-controlled Washington, but with a President Romney whose record, demeanor and style is quite different from that of George W. Bush.
None of this means that the task remaining before Romney isn’t difficult. But for most of this general election, the race featured an incumbent and a poorly-defined caricature.
The debates demonstrated that no one can make the case for a candidate better than the candidate himself — not the SuperPACs, not the national party, not the surrogates nor the running mate. Only Romney himself could look the voters in the eye and demonstrate that he had the knowledge, the composure, the deftness and the concern they wanted to see. Romney’s message was simple but resonant — if we can get more Americans in jobs, we’ll see dramatic improvement in our budgetary, debt and social conditions.
If, by Nov. 6, Americans conclude they believe Romney can deliver on that vision, then the conventional wisdom of just a few weeks ago may prove spectacularly wrong. Romney may not just win, he may win handily.