The Obama campaign is quick to say that the presidential race is about two competing economic visions for America—about which ticket cares more about the middle class. We know better. What it’s really about, at least for the professionals on President Obama’s campaign communications team, is shredding Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
It’s on the air. It’s in the ads aired by the campaign and by super PACs. You can follow it in real time on Twitter. Ben LaBolt, the campaign’s chief spokesman, said that Romney’s gripes about the meanness of Team Obama made him sound “unhinged.” The word immediately became a hashtag.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a top Obama surrogate, meanwhile, is tweeting that Romney is a guy you wouldn’t want to play pickup basketball with. Weeks earlier, Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, suggested that Romney could have committed a felony by providing false information to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Top Obama strategist David Axelrod seems to enjoy baiting his counterpart in the Romney campaign, Eric Fehrnstrom, on Twitter, while Lis Smith, who heads Obama’s “rapid-response” team, hasn’t shied from mocking Romney press aides. Earlier this month, she assailed Romney’s integrity, saying, “He has forfeited the right to have us take him just at his word.”
Regardless of whether such tactics are fair game or below the belt, they appear to be working. Romney has repeatedly found himself on the defensive about his tax returns, his wealth, and his work as a venture capitalist. And his decision to tap Ryan as his running mate seemed to play directly into the Obama camp’s hands by turning the focus of the race, at least for the moment, to Medicare.
Obama’s team has been able to define Romney more clearly than Romney’s own campaign has. “Am I pleased with where we are relative to where some thought we would be? I would be lying to you if I said no,” Axelrod told National Journal. “And if anybody on the other side tells you they’re pleased with where they are or they are where they thought they would be, I think they’re lying to you.”
The architects of the communication strategy include Axelrod; David Plouffe, now a top White House adviser; campaign manager Jim Messina; Communications Director Brent Colburn; Cutter; and LaBolt. Cutter, who has become this campaign’s most visible TV presence, has particularly earned the enmity of conservatives, who routinely grouse about her on Twitter.
Cutter started in the Clinton White House, worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy, was a top aide to John Kerry in 2004, and served as Michelle Obama’s campaign chief of staff in 2008. Later, she was charged with crafting the messaging strategy for the Affordable Care Act.
Indeed, Obama’s communications crew features plenty of holdovers from 2008. LaBolt served as a spokesman during that campaign, moved to the White House, then went to work for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago before returning to the Obama fold. Jennifer Psaki, another 2008 press aide, became a White House spokeswoman before briefly entering the private sector.
She is now the campaign’s liaison to the White House traveling press corps and often briefs reporters side by side with administration spokesmen Jay Carney and Josh Earnest. If Obama wins a second term, she could succeed Carney as press secretary. Deputy campaign press secretary Katie Hogan was a press wrangler four years ago.
Of the newcomers, Smith formerly was a spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association. Her deputy, Danny Kanner, was the spokesman for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s short-lived Senate campaign as an independent. Ironically, he took over from Andrea Saul, now Romney’s chief spokeswoman.
Major Garrett contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the September 3, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.