The formal kickoff events for President Obama’s re-election campaign this past weekend sounded themes that won enthusiastic cheers from his admirers. But despite the hoopla, the rallies in Virginia and Ohio also showcased his weaknesses. The president possesses formidable advantages in his battle with Republican opponent Mitt Romney, but his reliance on a purely negative approach demonstrates something that political observers have long understood: a man who cannot run on his record is going to have to spend most of the next six months attacking the opposition and attempting to define them as unfit to govern rather than talking about his own accomplishments and ideas.
With the national polls showing the race to be dead even, the Obama campaign finds itself in a difficult predicament. The economy is in poor shape, and the latest jobs numbers give little hope for the sort of summer recovery that could put the president in a commanding position. The White House is confident, as Mark Halperin writes in TIME, that they can define Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire who has swung to the right to win his party’s nomination. But though it is certainly possible for a politician to win re-election by framing the race as a referendum on his challenger, that generally only works when the opposition is an obvious outlier in the manner of a Barry Goldwater or George McGovern. Romney has his problems, but it will not be easy to portray such a mainstream and conventional person as a marginal figure. The dip in enthusiasm for the president, illustrated starkly by the empty seats at both rallies that few doubt would have been filled four years ago, shows the potential downside to this approach.