White House spokesman Jay Carney recently told reporters that President Obama is spending a “relatively small amount of time” campaigning for November 2012, since he is far more focused on governing.
But as it becomes increasingly likely that Mitt Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee, Obama’s re-election strategy is starting to take shape – and it looks to be a far cry from his idealism-infused 2008 bid.
If the Obama of 2008 dazzled US voters with promises to transcend partisan strife in Washington, the president’s message of hope, change, and “yes we can” seems obsolete during a time of continued economic anxiety. Instead, the president’s campaign team is crafting a re-election plan that consists of Obama playing up his accomplishments, pointing to encouraging economic signs, and, above all, defining the Republican alternative as negatively as possible.
A message of ‘fairness’
Obama will boast of various achievements on the campaign trail: the healthcare overhaul, the auto industry bailout, killing Osama bin Laden, withdrawing US troops from Iraq, bringing an end to “don’t ask don’t tell”.
But the economy will be the foremost issue on voters’ minds, and no US president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been re-elected with a jobless rate above 7.2%. If the trends of economic recovery recently seen continue, Obama is expected to make the case that his policies helped prevent a worse crisis—and that a Republican president would bring the US economy crashing down again.
According to Ari Berman, author of “Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics”, that case will succeed or fail on the basis of employment figures. “If unemployment continues to go down, Obama’s chances of staying in the White House are much better,” Berman told FRANCE 24. “If unemployment rises, it’ll be an uphill battle.”
Without stellar economic results to campaign upon, the president will focus on underlining his ideological differences with Republicans when it comes to the economy. In a recent blog post for The New York Times, legal scholar Stanley Fish argued that Obama should rely on the “fairness argument”. As Fish explains, Americans are not bothered by income inequality, which they see as an inevitable consequence of a free-market economy, but they cannot stand an uneven playing field. “In the eyes of most Americans, it is OK that Mitt Romney makes more money than they do,” Fish writes. “But it is not OK…for Mitt Romney to be paying a lower tax rate than his housecleaner….President Obama can take the fairness mantra all the way to…a second term.”
Defining the opposition
If Obama faces Romney, he will indeed use the Republican’s tax history as an indication that Romney is, in Berman’s words, “a creature of Wall Street and the ‘1 %’, who wants to protect the people that got us into this [economic] mess”.
As political analyst Darrell West of the Brookings Institution told FRANCE 24: “Obama will have to raise Romney’s negatives. That is the only way he can overcome the bad economy.”
To do so, the Obama campaign will take a page from Newt Gingrich’s pegging Romney as a soulless capitalist who lined his pockets as CEO of a private equity firm while laying off workers. They will also keep a list of Romney’s verbal gaffes on the campaign trail, which have tended to revolve around issues of wealth and employment. Romney’s recent remark to CNN that he’s “not concerned about the very poor”, a comment weeks ago that he “like[s] being able to fire people”, and one over the summer that “corporations are people” will surely resurface in Obama campaign advertisements.
Obama is already busy contrasting himself with Romney. At a speech in Virginia Wednesday, he talked up a White House plan to help homeowners refinance their mortgages, dismissively alluding to Romney’s statement a day earlier that the housing market had to “bottom out” before it got better. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist in key swing state of Colorado, said the president would likely push “the narrative that he’s for average working Americans, and the Republicans are about protecting the wealthy and further dividing the country into haves and have-nots”.
The president will moreover try to tie his Republican opponent to deeply unpopular congressional Republicans. Last December, Obama’s deputy press secretary told reporters that the re-election campaign would present “the image of a gridlocked, dysfunctional Congress and a president who is leaving no stone unturned to try to find solutions”. In doing so, Obama can argue that his attempts to advance his 2012 agenda have been thwarted by an almost uniformly hostile opposition party.
To further dissociate himself from Congress, Obama will announce an initiative called “We Can’t Wait”, consisting of executive orders meant to help job seekers.
Recreating a coalition of supporters?
In 2008, Obama was carried to a decisive victory by a broad coalition of constituencies—young voters, African-Americans, Latinos, single women, and highly educated whites—taking states that no Democrat had won in years, such as Virginia, Nevada, and Indiana.
The consensus is that 2012 will be different. “Is Obama going to have to work harder in this campaign? Absolutely,” strategist Laura Chapin said. “The novelty has worn off, and the economy is only starting to creep back. Margins will be closer than in 2008.”
A recent article in The New York Times examined the possibility that Obama would not even try to win over the “white working class”, but focus instead on consolidating a “center-left coalition” of well-off, progressive professionals and lower-income minorities. Still, as both Berman and Chapin pointed out, Mitt Romney, with his millions of dollars and lavish homes, is not a match made in heaven for working-class whites, either.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is reportedly hard at work trying to reactivate the vast army of volunteers that spent endless days and sleepless nights campaigning for a politician they believed in four years ago. The campaign is also looking at various combinations of states that Obama could win or lose in order to get to the 270 electoral votes he needs (far below the whopping 365 he snagged in 2008).
In any case, with a still-fragile economy, polarised public opinion, and widespread disillusionment with both parties, it is bound to be a bruising campaign for both Obama and his opponent.
“Look for a general election that is nasty, negative and filled with wild claims,” Darrell West of the Brookings Institution told FRANCE 24. “It won't be a pretty sight.”