Morning Jay: Blue Smoke and Mirrors
6:00 AM, Jun 15, 2011 • By JAY COST
And so the great machinery of the Obama-Biden campaign has slowly begun now to turn. Consider the following:
A. The president is in Puerto Rico on a visit so obviously political that Bloomberg can't keep it out of the lede:
B. Earlier in the week Obama was in North Carolina, pushing jobs:
C. And the Obama team is already offering up "strategy memos."
Expect to see more of this stuff over the next year. Lots and lots more. And, of course, it will be accompanied by sychophantic media accounts that talk up just how powerful his campaign is, how weak the Republican opposition is, and so on.
Yet I can promise you one thing: none of this is going to make any difference. It is the kind of stuff politicians, campaign professionals, and media types believe are "game changers," but it isn't. To borrow a phrase from the Carter era, we might call it all "blue smoke and mirrors."
It was at about the same point in his administration that Jimmy Carter gave the so-called "malaise speech," which was originally meant to be a game changer for the administration. Carter had invited scores of party leaders up to Camp David to seek their advice on how to rescue his troubled presidency. Inflation had clocked in at 10.3 percent over the previous year. The price of a barrel of oil had increased by about 50 percent. While the unemployment rate was relatively low (under 6 percent), inflation was eating away at real incomes, leaving people extremely pessimistic about the future, and about the president, whose job approval was by that point in the low 30s. Meanwhile, a tax revolt was brewing on Carter's right, and, on his left, Ted Kennedy was sounding more and more like a presidential candidate.
Carter wanted to get back to what had made him such a political success three years earlier--forging a connection with people who had grown tired of party politics. This was one of the major goals of the "malaise" speech, although he never used the word "malaise" in it. Instead, Carter bemoaned, "the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation." It was classic Carter: part politician, part therapist, part preacher.
Initially, reaction to the speech was very positive. But in the long run, it didn't do a lick of good. Part of the reason why was that Carter followed the speech up by sacking a handful of cabinet secretaries, making him (again) seem erratic and not in control. However, the bigger problem was the state of the union, which no amount of rhetoric could fix. As Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote later on:
This is exactly what Team Obama is offering up right now--blue smoke and mirrors. President Obama lost public confidence in the first two years of his tenure, and Americans responded by filling Congress with dozens of new Republicans, ending the (short) era of liberal governance. Obama does not have the disposition to meet Republicans halfway, and, at any rate, his political advisors seem to have convinced him that demagoguing the GOP is the better approach. So, the president is emphasizing political theater, endeavoring to create the impression that the economy is in better shape than it is (or at least that he is not to blame), that he has a realistic plan to handle the deficit, and that he is in strong shape for reelection.
It will do no good. The president can visit as many green companies as he likes. His team can put out as many strategy videos as it likes. It can organize its ground game in Virginia all day and all night. None of this is going to change the fundamentals of this upcoming election, which are:
1. The economy is substantially weaker for Obama than for other previous presidents who won reelection.
2. The deficit is now substantially higher than before.
3. His major domestic reform--Obamacare--is substantially more unpopular.
4. The American people are substantially more pessimistic.
That's the state of the nation at this point. Nothing the Obama campaign can do at this point will affect any of these fundamentals--the hope is that its efforts will alter the public's perceptions of these fundamentals, but it won't. If we've learned anything in the last 50 years of the modern campaign, it's that the billion dollar efforts of campaign technocrats, who now dominate our politics, cannot convince people that the sun rises in the west.
So, when we peel back the spin, the boasting, and the partisan hyperbole, we get the following: The president is going to need real improvement on at least one of those four items, or he is going to lose next year, and the race will be over before midnight on the East Coast. And there won't be a single thing David Axelrod, Jim Messina, or David Plouffe can do to stop it.
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