In at least three crucial ways, President Obama is running an unorthodox campaign for reelection, shattering the pattern and priorities of his predecessors in a way that risks rebuke from undecided voters.
Interviews with Democratic strategists and Obama’s advisers—as well as the Democrats’ own preconvention talking points—betray a campaign that looks and feels oddly detached from the persuasive powers of the presidency and distracted by something most presidents in this position try to ignore: the clattering criticism of the challenger.
First, Obama and his top advisers obsess over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, his asserted unfitness for office, and the waywardness of his policies.
Second, the Obama team has given short shrift to its first-term accomplishments.
And third, descriptions of second-term priorities remain largely opaque, leaving voters to wonder where a reelected Obama would take the country.
The best example was Team Obama’s indirect and omnidirectional answer to the question “Is the country better off than it was four years ago?” Various aides or proxies answered it on Sunday’s talk shows, and each delivered an array of qualifications, pleas for context, and everything except an emergency “Yes, but …” button. On ABC’s This Week, White House senior adviser David Plouffe refused three times to answer the question but offered that Obama’s policies “staved” off a depression and that the nation is “beginning to recover.” On CBS’s Face the Nation, Maryland Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley bluntly said, “No,” people are not better off than four years ago. On Fox News Sunday, senior Obama reelection strategist David Axelrod gave an answer than ran one minute and five seconds.
In the aftermath, top counselor Robert Gibbs said, “You’ll find the president Thursday largely address the ‘better off’ question, pointing out that we are no longer facing the imminent collapse of the economy.”
Still, the political context is grim, and Obama’s team knows it. Unemployment is higher (up to 8.3 percent from 7.8 percent); median real wages are down (to $50,964 from $54,983), gas prices are up (to $3.78 per gallon from $1.85), and the national debt is up (to $15.9 trillion from $10.6 trillion). Those are not the only measuring sticks, but they track closely with voters’ perceptions of where we are going: In six national polls this month, the average “right track” number was 33 percent and the average “wrong track” number was 63 percent.
Obama’s campaign didn’t offer much guidance on combating these perceptions on a Sunday afternoon conference call to dispense talking points to sympathetic Democrats. “They need to turn the question around on Republicans,” said Chris Kofinis, a former chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and a top adviser to John Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign afterward. “Imagine if we had continued the failed Republican policies. Would you, your family be better off today?”
At the convention this week, middle-class voters will offer testimonials about how they benefited from Obama’s efforts to lower student-loan interest rates, provide access to health care coverage, and cut payroll taxes. Obama’s advisers consider this a strong response to skeptics who fault him for glossing over his first term as he attacks Romney relentlessly over the Republican’s private-equity past, his offshore bank accounts, and his unreleased tax returns. Doubtless, those speakers believe they have benefited from Obama’s policies, but the backdrop of higher poverty, lower wages, and high unemployment complicates the picture.
“You can’t simply disqualify the other candidate,” said Robert Gibbs, the campaign aide who was Obama’s first press secretary. “You have to explain what your agenda is and what your beliefs are. Fortunately for the president, the Republicans didn’t do any of that at their convention.… We will.” (There’s that fascination with Republicans again.) But Gibbs said that the days of presidents relying on the clout of their office and largely dismissing their rivals are long gone. “When Bill Clinton ran in 1996 with a very solid economy, he spent the first 12 months of his campaign beating the living crap out of Bob Dole.”
As for the second term, Obama will call for job creation and wage growth but leave details largely unexplained. It gets a light touch because it’s already an unfulfilled part of his first-term agenda.
The key for Obama, Democratic strategists said, will be to pitch his campaign forward and away from the demonization of Romney. Obama’s address will say almost nothing about Romney, Gibbs said, leaving criticism to former President Clinton and others. Democrats see deep reservoirs of public trust in Obama and a general sense that he, more than Romney, will devote his presidency to the plight of middle-income voters. “There is a real and personal connection,” said Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Ann Marsh.