So … “Forward” apparently has flopped. Earlier this week, The Hill explained that Barack Obama and his campaign still haven’t found a theme on which to run for a second term. “Forward” turned out to be all about the past, and now Team O is back to spitballing:
Obama formally launched his campaign this month with the message of “Forward,” but one senior Democratic Party official told The Hill that people who thought that would be the campaign’s lasting official slogan should “stay tuned.”
Obama at various times over the past year has taken “Winning the Future,” “A Fair Shot,” “An America Built to Last” and “We Can’t Wait” for test drives, but none has found lasting traction. Vice President Biden has suggested one possible bumper-sticker slogan: “GM’s alive; bin Laden’s dead.”
The president’s Twitter feed earlier this week featured a picture of him throwing a football at Chicago’s Soldier Field along with the words “Clear eyes, full hearts.” The slogan concludes with “can’t lose” and is borrowed from the TV show “Friday Night Lights.” It has been adopted as a semi-official rallying call by Obama loyalists, and can be seen displayed on walls — and a chalkboard or two — around the reelection team’s Windy City headquarters.
As we have noted a number of times in the past, this team has had more than a year in Chicago to come up with a theme and an agenda for voters in this election. Their opening attack on Mitt Romney failed after having prepared it for over eight months, too. It’s as if the Obama campaign has no idea who their candidate is or how to pitch him to voters, and they’re not so hot at diagnosing Romney, either.
Yesterday, Ed Rodgers at the Washington Post wondered whether Democrats plan on another Obamessiah approach of idolization and deification:
The left has a decision to make: Is it going to try to repackage the starry-eyed romance and dreamy magic of Barack Obama from four years ago or build a rationale for his reelection based on lessons learned and a plausible critique of the president’s performance in office. Perhaps it will need to acknowledge that the idolization of Obama was a one-time phenomena and that voters, desperate for some results, will be impatient with proselytizing from the Obama camp.
A good test is approaching. Next Monday, June 4, will be the four-year anniversary of the speech candidate Obama gave celebrating his delegate count, which would make him the certain Democrat nominee. He took the occasion to state what he thought his presidency foretold. Of his own nomination victory, Obama said, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” He let others really lay it on thick. You would think the retrospective absurdity of this quote would make liberals a little cautious, if not embarrassed, and cause them to rethink how they enabled Obama. We will see how this is hidden or celebrated in the next few days.
Rodgers points out that Frank Bruni at the New York Times has decided to go the full American Idol route:
Bruni appears to be willing to strain even harder for Obama in 2012 by neglecting to find anything particularly admirable about Mitt Romney while completely refreshing the Obama myth. He never hints that the reality of electing a president who was a little-accomplished state senator, unknown community organizer and high school stoner has produced some disappointments and required plenty of on-the-job training. You have to read it to get the full dose, but among other things, Bruni says of Obama, “He still personifies the hope that we might evolve into the colorblind, fair-minded country that many of us want. His own saga taps into the larger story of this country’s fitful unfinished progress toward its stated ideal of equal opportunity.”
In other words, prepare for more fainting spells from Obama’s allies in the media. Not all of them are on board, however. New York Magazine’s John Heileman writes that the old campaign on hope has given way to the new campaign strategy of fear and loathing (language warning, because hey, it’s NYM):
But if the Obama 2012 strategy in this regard is all about the amplification of 2008, in terms of message it will represent a striking deviation. Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”
The Obama effort at disqualifying Romney will go beyond painting him as excessively conservative, however. It will aim to cast him as an avatar of revanchism. “He’s the fifties, he is retro, he is backward, and we are forward—that’s the basic construct,” says a top Obama strategist. “If you’re a woman, you’re Hispanic, you’re young, or you’ve gotten left out, you look at Romney and say, ‘This fucking guy is gonna take us back to the way it always was, and guess what? I’ve never been part of that.’ ”
Thus, to a very real degree, 2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear. For many Democrats, this is just fine and dandy, for they believe that in the Romney-Republican agenda there is plenty to be scared of. For others in the party in both politics and business, however, the new Obama posture is cause for concern. From the gay-marriage decision to the onslaught on Bain, they see the president and his team as coming across as too divisive, too conventional, and too nakedly political, putting at risk Obama’s greatest asset—his likability—with the voters in the middle of the electorate who will ultimately decide his fate.
In my column for The Week, I reached the same conclusion as Heilemann, but for different reasons. With the economy stagnating and the majority of voters wanting his biggest legislative achievement overturned by the Supreme Court, Obama has nothing else left to offer but the antithesis of Hope and Change — Fear and Inertia:
That’s why Obama’s struggles now have more than a taste of irony. If anything, the American public has grown more anti-establishment in sentiment. Obama can’t take advantage of it, however, for two reasons. First, Obama became the establishment, co-opting the very institutions against which he once railed — the Clintons, Wall Street, his party’s entrenched Congressional leadership, and lobbyists. That was more or less inevitable; even the most fervent anti-establishment politicians have to get other politicians to assist in passing legislation, or risk being seen as isolated and ineffective.
Obama’s bigger problem is his lack of a coherent and positive vision. In 2008, Obama’s team didn’t need to produce a complicated and nuanced agenda for his presidency; not being the establishment was enough. This time, Obama has to either produce a real agenda to justify a second term after three years of economic stagnation, or he has to make his opponent look scary and weird.
So far, Team Obama has opted for Plan Scary. They have painted Mitt Romney as a heartless “vampire capitalist” and dug up stories of high-school bullying. They have used Ann Romney’s passion for horses as a way to remind voters of just how wealthy the Romneys are. But those attacks have largely backfired as Democrats objected to attacks on private equity, an industry on which they rely for donors, and the mean-spiritedness of the personal attacks stoked sympathy for the Romneys, especially Ann.
In one sense, it’s similar to Obama’s 2008 campaign, but with a very big difference. Obama wanted to paint the Romneys as part of an existing establishment, as he successfully did with Clinton, Edwards, and McCain in 2008. This time, though, Obama isn’t presenting an alternative to the status quo. Without a positive vision for a second term — or really any vision for a second term — the strategy looks a lot more personal than political, and a desperate attempt to distract from his record in the new establishment. The Daily Beast‘s Lloyd Grove wrote this weekend about the emergence of an Obama “mean streak,” and quoted Larry Sabato comparing Obama’s campaigning to high-school bullying.
That’s why Team Obama has come up empty on a coherent campaign theme, despite having more than a year to do so. Their candidate has no agenda, no vision, and no good reason to offer for a second term except by demonizing his opponent. Fear and Inertia is all they have left.