By Elvin Lim
For weeks, President Barack Obama seemed consumed with the challenges in governing. With the turmoil in the Middle-East taking one unanticipated turn after another, the White House has been in crisis management mode for the past several weeks. Decisions that matter to millions of people around the world, as well as to our allies, who want more of us than we are willing give in Libya, have had to be made. Despite our democratic fantasy, leadership occurs behind a barricade of confidentiality. Both Obama and George Bush well know that leaders must sometimes push on behind the scenes, with or without public and congressional support.
But just two years into office, the president is emerging from the woodwork because the campaign beckons. Last week, he delivered his address explaining the mission in Libya, after several days of criticisms about Mission: Unclear. Then on Saturday, he re-entered the debate about the federal budget for this year, after staying away from the fray for weeks, by calling Senator majority leader Harry Reid and Speaker John Boehner to tell them that he is supporting a deal to cut another $23 billion from last year’s spending levels. Obama is back in the public eye in part because he had a bit of political windfall on Friday when the Labor Department reported that unemployment dipped slightly to 8.8 percent. Because the public (still) cares more about the economy than what is happening abroad, the president must wade back into economic and spending issues. So the machinations begin, and the wires are now reporting that Obama is likely to announce his re-election bid early next week.
There is one reason why Obama is making the obvious official so soon. He can start raising money as soon as he registers with the Federal Election Commission, and the sooner he starts, the more likely his would become the first billion dollar campaign in the history of American politics. (Obama raised $750 million in 2008.) So whereas Republicans have no incentive to declare early (because the first in is also the first attacked by would-be contenders in a crowded primary field, especially one in which the balance of power of the Tea Party movement remains too unclear in the face of ongoing budgetary debates for potential contenders to dare to come down firmly or tepidly for it), the President would be off to a head-start. If he forces the inevitable internecine fight in the Republican fold to start earlier, Obama wins. If he doesn’t, it doesn’t hurt to start building the campaign war-chest. After all, in this day and age, the costs of appearing self-serving at a moment when the nation is mired in budget talks and trying to extricate itself from a third war are nevertheless worth the gain in campaign finance by starting early. This is particularly the case for a Democratic candidate who, in the face of recent political reconfigurations in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, might well have to find a different way to the 270 than the one which worked for him in 2008.
The White House hopes to downplay the event because it doesn’t need a boost the way it would if primary challengers are expected, and it is more important that the president does not appear like he is taking time out from governing to raise money. But raise a lot of money Obama will, starting from his first re-election fundraiser in Chicago – where the heart of the campaign will be located, as in 2008 – on April 14.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.