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Magazine

ANALYSIS: WHITE HOUSE

The Upside Down Smile

Would Obama be able to govern in a second term amid acidic divisions widened by his own attacks?

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President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event at the Cincinnati Music Hall in Cincinnati, Monday, July 16, 2012. Obama is spending the day campaigning in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

It’s only July, and President Obama’s campaign has already called Mitt Romney an outsourcing, job-killing, company-bankrupting whiner who may also be a tax cheat and a felon. The brass knuckles are out, the presumptive Republican nominee is bleeding, and Obama is selling off his likability as if it were an inexhaustible commodity.

But is it? Can voters tolerate the lurch from preaching hope and change to mocking Romney’s off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful” and hurling contestable allegations that he oversaw the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries? And even if they do, does Obama’s team see a governing path for a reelected president who has so toxically attacked his rival?

 

In private conversations they will not allow to be quoted, Obama’s top campaign advisers believe that he will win reelection by 51 percent to 49 percent. That’s a smaller popular-vote percentage than Obama’s 52.9 percent in 2008. If this happens, Obama will be the first president since Andrew Jackson to win reelection with a lower percentage of the popular vote than his first election (James Madison was the other one who did this).

Even so, Obama will claim a mandate, but it will, by definition, be smaller than the one he captured in 2008. The Republican House, a by-product of voter unhappiness with his first two years in office, will likely remain, although with slightly smaller numbers. The wild card is the Senate. Obama and Romney advisers both expect the chamber to follow the top of the ticket, with a narrow majority either way.

To win, senior Obama advisers concede they must impeach the witness, meaning they have to deprive Romney of the ability to speak credibly during the GOP convention or in the three presidential debates about the economy, job creation, or any other financial insights he may possess for these troubled times. The relentless attention focused on Romney’s reign at Bain Capital, his tax returns, a Swiss bank account, a Bermuda corporation, and other exotic financial details is all about the preemptive disqualification of the candidate.

 

“Romney is Exhibit One of why his own argument is false,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, head of the Democratic Governors Association. “His personal story cuts the knees out from the theory that rich people reinvest and create jobs. This guy doesn’t even buy his own bullshit. He cries crocodile tears in front of factory gates. It would be irresponsible for the president not to point that out.”

Doing so is harsh, partisan, and unforgiving—precisely the kind of politics that Obama previously denounced. But some Democrats blame Romney as much as Obama for making the attacks stick so easily. “Remember, this campaign looks tough and negative because the Romney campaign has been so incompetent,” said a top Democratic ad strategist. “There is no muscularity to their response. So it looks like the clubbing of a harp seal.”

As for the elasticity of Obama’s likability, Democrats are convinced that there’s no snapping it, that Obama can be as harsh as he needs and survive virtually unscathed. They do acknowledge private fears that if the economic news continues to darken, Obama’s record may prove more disqualifying than the seeds of doubt they plant about Romney.

Right now, polling and focus groups support that theory. Obama’s approval rating and likability have not suffered so far. Congress, especially Republicans, register historically low approval ratings. Top advisers say that Obama has weathered the real storms of the recession and three consecutive summers of underwhelming job growth. Getting tough now, they say, just shows Obama’s grit, something worried voters want to see during times of woe.

 

And yet. Even if a scorched-earth campaign bent on crippling Romney’s credibility yields a victory, Obama is almost sure to encounter a new Congress with a shrunken popular-vote mandate, an even more narrowly divided Senate, and a House majority even more ideologically antagonistic than it is now (if that is possible). “It’s a mess,” a senior House Democratic aide said. “I don’t know that there’s any way to predict how we get anything done in the next four years.”

Even so, most Democrats are delighted with Obama’s newfound taste for the jugular, one that many say was woefully AWOL during scrapes with Republicans over extending the Bush tax cuts in 2010 or the debt-ceiling showdown in 2011.

Lawmakers know that a dizzying array of difficult issues with long political fangs await them after the election: more than a trillion dollars in across-the-board spending cuts over the next decade; the expiration of tax cuts on marginal rates, payroll, dividends, and capital gains; and Medicare doctor reimbursements. Will a divisive campaign fought over Romney’s Bain terrain and 1040 forms yield results in the face of such daunting tasks? Democrats say that’s secondary to victory.

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“I don’t think the campaign will impact the sense of urgency of addressing the problems after the election,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. “What it will affect is who wins. The campaign is going to be scorched earth on both sides. The difference is Obama will still be president.”

Top Obama advisers say that the president has no choice but to trade on his likability; preserving it in a losing effort would amount to political malpractice. “Political capital comes from strength,” a top campaign adviser said. “If Obama wins and wins big enough, he’ll have the political strength to push things through. If he wins but is perceived as weak, then the Republicans will block everything he wants to do and he’ll be a four-year lame duck.”

Right now, Obama’s team will take any victory, even the narrowest kind that leaves much of Obama’s old persona bleached and battered. Why? Without victory, there is no governing. As Vince Lombardi said: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” 

This article appears in the July 21, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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