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Morning Jay: Obama's Troubled Reelection Strategy

6:00 AM, Apr 13, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Karl Rove had a spot-on column in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. He wrote, in part:

Mr. Obama's speech to the Associated Press last week and two appearances in Florida on Tuesday provide a glimpse of the low road the president and his campaign likely will take.

He will distort beyond recognition his opponent's arguments…

No honest differences are possible with Mr. Obama. He will impugn the motives of any who disagree with him…

To divert attention from his administration's many failures, Mr. Obama will also offer poll-tested nuggets that pit the many against the few.

Exactly. If I had to offer a brief summary of Obama’s campaign strategy this year, it would be this:

Clearly, this is not an ideal strategy, for any candidate. Typically, successful reelection campaigns – e.g. 1936, 1956, 1972, 1984, and 1996 – have been based on narratives about how the country has turned a corner, thanks to the incumbent’s greatness. Think “Nixon’s The One!” “It’s Morning In America” or “Bridge To The 21st Century.” None of that applies to President Obama, who instead looks to tar Mitt Romney as the evil stepchild of J.P. Morgan and Barry Goldwater.

The obvious question is: why is he doing this? The answer is simple, and suggests Obama’s lead in the head-to-head polls is quite tenuous. Recall Ronald Reagan’s closing statement in the October 1980 debate:

Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls; you'll stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were 4 years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was 4 years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was 4 years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were 4 years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to who you'll vote for. If you don't agree, if you don't think that this course that we've been on for the last 4 years is what you would like to see us follow for the next 4, then I could suggest another choice that you have.

This, put simply, is Barack Obama’s problem. If the 2012 election is framed on “are you better off than you were four years ago?,” then he is going to lose. His record on the economy, the deficit, energy policy, and health care are all very unpopular.

So, Obama’s objective is to get the country to think about other things. In particular, he has of late employed a series of gimmicks to induce the country to conceive of Mitt Romney in the above terms. The whole “war on women” is exactly along those lines, as is the Buffett Rule. Both speak to the core strategy – Romney is a conservative radical and tool of big business who wants to deprive women of birth control and help only the rich get richer. 

In pulling this off, Obama has two very substantial problems.

First, Mitt Romney will have an opportunity to define himself for the electorate, funded by hundreds of millions of dollars worth of television ads. And he has a compelling story to tell: family man and father of five, started his own company that invested in a lot of visible businesses, saved the Salt Lake City Olympics, and worked with Democrats in Massachusetts of all places. It is going to be easier said than done to stick either the Barry Goldwater or the J.P. Morgan label on him.

Second, and more importantly, this is not what swing voters want to talk about. Think of the campaign in terms of consumer economics: Customers want Walmart and Target to stock their shelves with certain items at certain prices, and the purchasing power of their dollars forces the two firms to comply. Well, our parties are like Walmart and Target, the voters are their customers, and the campaigns are like the marketplace. In the competition for votes, the two parties invariably end up talking about what the country, and in particular the swing vote, wants to talk about.

I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the average swing voter does not want to talk about the “war on women,” the Buffett rule, or whatever else Team Obama is going to throw out there in the weeks and months to come. That voter wants to talk about jobs, the economy, the deficit, gas prices, the health care bill--in other words, all the issues where the president is vulnerable. And the competition of the campaign means that swing voter will get what he wants – Team Romney is more than happy to discuss all those issues, and so Obama will have no choice but to respond.

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