The striking thing about this campaign is that the guy who looks and behaves like the challenger is the incumbent — President Barack Obama.
His speech at the Democratic National Convention was infused with the same gauzy vibe that marked his ’08 run. During the final debate last week, it was Obama who seemed peevish and hectoring, while his opponent, Mitt Romney, seemed presidential.
Last week, the Obama campaign finally rolled out the president’s plan for a second term. It turned out to be a 20-page pamphlet full of photos of Obama meeting with happy voters in factories, labs or on the campaign trail.
This too, had the quality of a candidate seeking an office for the first time.
It was mostly rehash. Obama wants temporary tax breaks for domestic hiring. He wants 100,000 new teachers. He still wants to whack the rich. He wants to reduce the budget deficit. He wants people to pretend they haven’t heard this stuff before.
His problem is that he can’t remind voters of what he’s actually done because it makes them cranky. Never mind the ’08 promises about cutting the deficit in half or going through it “line by line.” The big things Obama did do — the ineffectual stimulus and the still-unpopular health care law — left too many voters in a sour mood.
Obama’s problem today is that months ago, he staked his political future on demonizing his opponent, and lost. Month after month, the campaign or its surrogates told voters that Romney was a heartless, dufus rich guy who ran a rapacious private-equity outfit that wiped out jobs and ruined lives or, in a tale told in one preposterous ad, did things that led to a woman’s death. The strategy was to destroy Romney before he even got to the Republican Convention.
It was working, too. But then Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate and the dynamic began to change. Picking Ryan — the party’s undisputed intellectual leader — brought into play the big issues with which Ryan is associated: the need to get the deficit under control, reform entitlements and jolt the economy out of its torpor. It was a signal that a President Romney would tackle those problems, not run from them.
As Glenn Thrush wrote at Politico, Obama’s gamble became a loser on the evening of Oct. 3 in Denver. During the first presidential debate, Romney “refused to live up to his caricature as The Worst Candidate Ever” and his climb in the polls began. After that, all Romney had to do was appear earnest, strong and well-informed in the next two debates.
Which led to Obama’s desperation move.
He would have to actually say, or at least try to say, what he planned to do for a second term. So out came the happy photos and hollow promises, repackaged as a “plan.”
The most revealing thing to come out last week, however, was not Obama’s “plan.” It was the text of a fund-raising email that seemed to carry an unintended portent for Nov. 6.
“I don’t want to lose this election,” Obama wrote. “Not because of what losing would mean for me — Michelle and I will be fine no matter what happens.”
He went on to explain the horrible things he thinks will happen if he loses, but no one receiving that would get the impression he rates his chances as good. It makes you wonder what the campaign’s internal polls are saying.