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Obama's 2012 Strategy: Slash and Burn

US Senate candidate Barack Obama, 2004:

"Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us.  The spin masters, the negative ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of anything goes."


Presidential candidate Barack Obama, 2008:

"Do we want to have the same old attack politics we've become accustomed to?  The same slash-and-burn politics? We're not going to go around doing negative ads.  We're going to keep it positive, we're going to talk about the issues."

President Barack Obama, 2011:

"I'm the President of the United State, and I want to make sure I am not engaging in scare tactics."

President, candidate Barack Obama, 2012:

Barack Obama’s aides and advisers are preparing to center the president’s reelection campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background, a strategy grounded in the early-stage expectation that the former Massachusetts governor is the likely GOP nominee

The dramatic and unabashedly negative turn is the product of political reality. Obama remains personally popular, but pluralities in recent polling disapprove of his handling of his job, and Americans fear the country is on the wrong track. His aides are increasingly resigned to running for reelection in a glum nation. And so the candidate who ran on “hope” in 2008 has little choice four years later but to run a slashing, personal campaign aimed at disqualifying his likeliest opponent.  “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney,” said a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House.


Step One of the "kill": Petty, middle school name-calling.

The onslaught would have two aspects. The first is personal: Obama’s reelection campaign will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird.”

“First, they’ve got to like you, and there’s not a lot to like about Mitt Romney,” said Chicago Democratic consultant Pete Giangreco, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. “There’s no way to hide this guy and hide his innate phoniness.” A senior Obama adviser was even more cutting, suggesting that the Republican’s personal awkwardness will turn off voters. “There’s a weirdness factor with Romney, and it remains to be seen how he wears with the public,” the adviser said, noting that the contrasts they’d drive between the president and the former Massachusetts governor would be “based on character to a great extent.”

Step Two of the "kill": Unrelenting class warfare.

The second aspect of the campaign to define Romney is his record as CEO of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that was responsible for both creating and eliminating jobs. Obama officials intend to frame Romney as the very picture of greed in the great recession — a sort of political Gordon Gekko.

“He was very, very good at making a profit for himself and his partners but not nearly as good [at] saving jobs for communities,” said David Axelrod, the president’s chief strategist. “His is very much the profile of what we’ve seen in the last decade on Wall Street. He was about making money. And that’s fine. But often times, he made it at the expense of jobs in communities.”

This is, at its core, a tacit acknowledgement by Team Obama that their electoral cupboard is totally bare.  There is no record on which President Obama can run successfully, so Hope and Change will give way to Seek and Destroy.  The economy is in dreadful shape, and even Obama's own allies concede that things will likely remain bleak through the election.  Today's Gallup tracking poll pegs Obama's overall approval at 40 percent -- matching his previous nadir.  According to the latest CNN poll, the President's disapproval numbers on the debt and the economy have reached all-time highs of 64 percent.  Even on foreign affairs, public disapproval of this president's job performance has reached 50 percent, also a new high.  Independents, who were Obama's bread-and-butter in 2008, disapprove of his job performance by a 26-point margin.  Most Americans oppose Obama's central political "achievement."  Running a positive, issues-based campaign simply is not an option for this White House.  Therefore, they'll try to rip the Republican nominee to shreds.  If it's Romney, he'll be a greedy, phony, weirdo.  If it's Perry, he'll be a Bushian, loose cannon, religious nut.  If it's...

Will this strategy work?  I suspect it will not -- with the crucial caveat that Republicans must nominate a credible, versatile, disciplined candidate.  As virtually every single recent poll has demonstrated, Americans are deeply displeased with Barack Obama's performance as president.  Many of those same polls indicate that most people still like him on a personal level.  Put another way, he's pretty well cooked on policy, so all he's got left is his brand and personal appeal.  Can Obama run a venemous, "kill the other guy" race, and keep that brand intact?  I'm not sure he can.  If he runs around the country swinging a hatchet at Republicans, and instructing his supporters to ignore the specifics of his record, many voters will think to themselves, "not only has he failed as a leader, he's not even the same nice guy we liked in 2008.  Next, please."
The Obama campaign may try to make 2012 all about character.  Republicans will cast the contest as a referendum on the incumbent.  I say, how about both?  Let's highlight the Obama Administration's myriad failures on policy (Obamacare, stimulus, debt explosion, unemployment, downgrade, mortgage bailouts, serial ally alienation, Libya) -- and if his camp insists on making it a character contest, let's revisit some of the very legitimate character/association questions that were dismissed as "smears" and "distractions" from the "real issues" in 2008.  This could be a devastating one-two punch:  Not only isn't Barack Obama a successful president, Joe and Jane Taxpayer, he also isn't the cool, smooth, post-partisan guy that inspired you four years ago.  It's time to move on.  If that message penetrates America's collective psyche, Obama is finished.

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