He was to transcend politics; to bring in a post-partisan era of hope and change. He was Senator Barack Obama, candidate for president.
But then, in a blink of an eye, the Barack Obama of 2008 morphed into the Barack Obama of 2012: an embattled incumbent.
Faced with a re-election challenge from a qualified, competent and well-funded opponent who has the profile of an economic fixer-upper, Obama chucked away the “hope and change” playbook in favor of a variety of political warfare tactics more suited to a House candidate than a sitting U.S. president.
On the stump, the incumbent acts like the challenger, spending a rather inordinate amount of time trying to vilify his opponent for having been successful in his business career while offering little insight into what a second Obama term will be like. For instance, during remarks in Iowa last week, Obama spent a few minutes repeating the reasons why he ran for president in 2008 before immediately pivoting to attack mode.
The strategy here is to tear down and demonize, not lift up and inspire. In theory, it’s supposed to tarnish Mitt Romney’s reputation and effect his poll numbers. In practice, it has served as a tacit acknowledgment by Chicago that Obama cannot win on his record. Otherwise, the message of his campaign would focus on what they believe to be his strength and vision for the future.
This is completely contrary to the meticulously built narrative we came to know just four years ago. As a Mitt Romney advisor told Politico, “President Obama has never managed anything other than his own personal narrative.” Now, he can’t even manage that.
Much of Obama’s brand and relative political mystique in 2008 centered around his “no drama Obama” mantra. Unlike those who occupied the Oval Office before him, he was cool, calm and collected, the story went. Even the biggest domestic issues and national security threats could not ─ and would not ─ rattle him.
This cycle, however, Obama has become unhinged. He and his team find it nearly impossible to mask their disgust for Romney’s accomplishments, evidenced by a series of withering, but ineffective, attack ads and pointed rhetoric in speeches and press releases used by the president and his surrogates.
Instead of hurting Romney’s poll numbers, the fear and loathing strategy is nullifying Obama’s most potent asset ─ his general likability ─ in exchange for a short term gain in polls that has yet to materialize.
As Bill McGurn pointed out in the Wall Street Journal several weeks ago, Romney’s path to victory requires him to appeal to a portion of the electorate that “like[s] Mr. Obama but have serious doubts about his leadership as president.”
In other words, folks game for grabbing a beer with Obama, if afforded the opportunity, but not thrilled with his job performance.
How then does Obama plan on keeping them in his corner when he willingly employs an attack dog shtick on the campaign trail?
At the moment, Obama stands in a worse position than he has been in recent months even in light of the near daily assault on Romney. The longer this goes on, the more likely it will exact a toll on Obama’s political standing and erode support among the sliver of the electorate McGurn wrote about, making Romney’s path to 270 Electoral College votes that much easier.