Commentary Magazine


A Fitting Message for the Obama Campaign to End On

Obama supporters are back to making Bain Capital an issue, Politico reports:

But with a little over a week left in the race, several of the Democrats’ top independent spenders are leaning hard into the Bain message, eschewing a pure policy message for a gut-punch reminder that the former Massachusetts governor made his fortune through controversial deals in the private-equity industry.

The late emphasis on Bain, Democratic strategists say, reflects both the potency of Bain as an attack against Romney in general, and the pivotal significance of Midwestern states such as Ohio where the Bain message is especially resonant. Though Romney remains no better than tied with Obama in most national and swing-state polls, he has gained enough ground since the first debate on Oct. 3 that reinforcing Obama’s standing in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin is of paramount importance. …

“If the Democrats could finish on a positive message, they would,” Romney adviser Matt McDonald said. “But the president has no positive message, no agenda for a second term and nothing left to offer voters. They’ve thrown everything including the kitchen sink and it hasn’t worked, so now their only choice is to throw the same kitchen sink again. It’s the campaign equivalent of the president’s policies: keep doing the same thing over again and hope for a different outcome.”

There’s no time for Obama to shift to a positive message, if one even existed to shift to. His campaign has tapped out its creativity. Their latest attempts at an alternative message? A booklet outlining the same vague policy ideas you can find on Obama’s website. And Obama’s grand proposal to create a “Secretary of Business” cabinet position in a second term (apparently nobody had the heart to tell him about the Secretary of Commerce). 

Obama’s brain trust seems to think it’s easier to frighten voters out of voting for Romney than to persuade voters to reelect the president. Since the Bain attacks didn’t work over the summer, it’s doubtful they’ll have much impact in the final stretch.

It would also be a fitting for Obama’s campaign, and perhaps his presidency, to end in an embrace of the same divisive politics he spoke out against four years ago. For all the talk about Romney’s lack of principles (not an unfair criticism), Obama has let politics trump almost everything he claimed to stand for in 2008. Richard Cohen writes at the Washington Post:

Instead, I see [Obama’s] failure to embrace all sorts of people, even members of Congress and the business community. I see diffidence, a reluctance to close. I see a president for whom Afghanistan is not just a war but a metaphor for his approach to politics: He approved a surge but also an exit date. Heads I win, tails you lose. …

[S]omewhere between the campaign and the White House itself, Obama got lost. It turned out he had no cause at all. Expanding health insurance was Hillary Clinton’s longtime goal, and even after Obama adopted it, he never argued for it with any fervor. In an unfairly mocked campaign speech, he promised to slow the rise of the oceans and begin to heal the planet. But when he took office, climate change was abandoned — too much trouble, too much opposition. His eloquence, it turned out, was reserved for campaigning.

Obama never espoused a cause bigger than his own political survival.

One point of disagreement. If Obama was purely interested in his political survival, he would have governed more like a Bill Clinton and pivoted to the center earlier in his campaign. But Cohen does hit some truth when he mentions Obama’s approach to politics. The president seems to view governing as a zero-sum game, where one side can only win if the other side loses (and the best approach is to make sure the other side never has a chance).

Obama’s presidency has been full of failures to compromise. In 2009, after Republicans expressed concerns about his stimulus, Obama famously told Eric Cantor: “I won. So I think on that one, I trump you.” He tanked the grand bargain. He derailed a potential DREAM Act compromise by taking executive action that he previously denied he could take. He’s declined to reach out to Republicans at almost every chance.

Congressional Republicans aren’t blameless. But most of them didn’t run on a promise of post-partisanship and bipartisan compromise, while Obama did. He had a responsibility to at least make a serious effort.

Instead, Obama and his team always seem too focused on winning the fight of the week, the day or the hour. He seems to have trouble looking beyond the immediate future, including goals as long-term as his “political survival.” It’s not just his campaign that’s seized on one distraction after another — it’s his entire presidency. One week he’s talking about immigration, the next he’s talking about green jobs. Then it’s the war in Afghanistan, and the Do-Nothing Congress. Now it’s back to Bain Capital. In the end, few things actually get done.

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