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.
Romney got a taste of the power of incumbency last week when the president was able to dominate a couple of news cycles with his secret trip to Afghanistan timed to coincide with the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The president can also count on the sort of kid glove treatment that he has received throughout his administration from a mainstream press that has observed Camelot-style rules when it comes to mockery of the chief executive and his family.
But the man who was catapulted to the presidency on a wave of optimism four years ago now is attempting something completely different. This time, instead of playing the post-partisan offering the nation “hope” and “change,” Obama will be spending much of his time on the stump blasting Romney and the Republicans. That, and not the achievements of his administration, are the only winning points in his political arsenal. This is driven in no small measure by the unpopularity of Congress and the fact that the GOP is blamed more than the Democrats for Washington gridlock even if that is more than a bit unfair.
But Obama, whom even the liberal New York Times described as playing the role of “an aging rock star” at his campaign kickoffs, is finding that like those faded personalities, it isn’t possible to recreate the buzz his debut on the national stage generated. That left him grasping at an effort to run on divisive social issues — such as the bogus “war on women” theme — and a somewhat pathetic call for his backers to tell their friends that his cause “was still about hope” and “still about change.”
But for an incumbent president to run away from the key issue of the day — a faltering economy — is counterintuitive to the mood of the electorate.
The Democrats have an easier path to an Electoral College majority as well as a candidate who can endlessly boast that he was the commander-in-chief who ordered the bin Laden slaying. But the lack of a positive rationale is a terrible handicap that has resulted in a situation where, despite a divisive primary season that weakened his opponent’s popularity and party, President Obama finds himself no better than even with Romney.