By Elvin Lim
How quickly fortunes change. For the first time this election season, the Republicans look poised not only to match Obama’s fundraising ability, but to beat him at it. There is certainly no way that Obama is going to enjoy the 3 to 1 advantage he had over McCain four years ago. All this is also to say, then, that for the first time this year, Mitt Romney could be the frontrunner in the presidential race.
The worst month for the Dow Jones this year has also been the worst for Obama. Republicans are perking up because with the economy taking a turn for the worse, Obama’s electoral college advantage appears to be weakening. Having won an important victory in the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin, the GOP now believes that it has a shot at bleeding Democratic resources there, and possibly even in Michigan and Pennsylvania. If Obama is forced to spend valuable time and resources in these three weakly Democratic-leaning states, he will have less time to spend in Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado.
Just as Obama looks like he is defending the electoral fort, he is also in defense mode on the ideas. This is the fundamental difference between ’08 and ’12. Obama had it easier in 2008, when he was up against a highly unpopular president waging a highly unpopular war. Not so in 2012, when this not so popular president, defending an even more unpopular health-care law, is up against the same atavistic contempt for incumbents that he had used to upend McCain in ’08. This is why Obama surrogates keep going on about the mess they inherited. The longer they can claim Obama to be the Washington outsider besieged by the legacy of Bush, the less he can be stained by his own incumbency.
Yet the more he gripes about the past, the more Obama looks like a rookie overwhelmed by the complexities of governance, and the more Mitt Romney looks like the man for the job. Obama’s campaign slogan, “Forward,” subtly implies that the Republicans are “backwards.” But the president should be mindful that he can hardly appear to be leaning forward if his eyes are continually cast backwards to the previous administration for comparison. That strategy worked once in 2008, but the past cannot be prologue twice.
To top it off, the president made his “the private sector is doing fine” comment. You would expect this from Joe Biden, not Barack Obama. The president isn’t out of touch, but out of it. Even the best campaigners crack when reality bites. Hit hard by a slew of bad news, Obama is running to his base, rhetorically and literally, for comfort and coddling. But neither partisan sound-bites nor standing ovations by the LGBT community are going to get him reelected.
The dynamics of 2012 are nothing like that of 2008. Americans are done with hope; they want jobs. They are done with bickering about wars, and are more angry about health-care laws. Obama is no longer the new kid on the block and he isn’t going to be the best funded anymore. Inspiring platitudes will not work this year. As the going gets tough, Team Obama will have to think outside of the ’08 box or face ignominious defeat.
Elvin Lim is Associate 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.