Now we know what the match up will be – Obama vs. Romney. That ends the first phase of the Presidential campaign. Now the focus is on fund raising, planning the conventions, and assessing what is likely to work in the fall.
One thing that has to be done early in the campaign is to try to define your opponent. If the public associates a certain image with a candidate, it can stick: John Kerry was an out of touch elitist who windsurfs and likes France. The now debunked “swiftboat” attacks on his service had an impact and undercut the benefits his war hero status should have brought. Dukakis was a nerdy liberal intellectual who didn’t understand real America.
The Obama camp will try to define Mitt Romney as the aloof out of touch millionaire who flip flops and takes no stand on principle because he just wants so bad to be President. If Romney tries to veer to the center and shed the more extreme sound bites of the early campaign it will feed the image of him as an unprincipled flip flopper.
The importance of this for the Obama campaign cannot be overstated. In many ways Romney is a strong candidate. He is a moderate, his business experience appeals to independents, and his time as Governor of Massachusetts proves he can work effectively with Democrats. He is clearly no right wing ideologue and if the economy still looks bad in November, Romney is a safe alternative for centrists turned off by the right wing of the GOP. In other words, Romney’s biggest weaknesses are personal.
It’s harder to define an incumbent. It can be done – both President Carter and President Bush the Elder were defined as incompetent and inept. The re-definition worked because the economy was bad — and that’s Romney’s hope for the fall. The Romney camp will claim Barack Obama is a failed President who has not united the country nor fixed the economy.
Romney has tried to revive the attempt to define Obama as a strange leftist who may be a secret radical. That ultimately failed in 2008 and it’s extremely unlikely to work in 2012. Recently Romney called Obama the “hide and seek” President, who is concealing his “real” agenda. That approach might fire up the base, but appears a bit desperate. After all, President Obama governed his first two years with a strong Democratic majority. If he was driven by a particular agenda, that’s when he could have gotten it done. The President has in fact spent the last three years being criticized by his party’s left wing for being too moderate, too willing to work with Republicans, and for not fundamentally altering President Bush’s strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea that was just a ruse designed to win a the second term when he’d unveil his real agenda is simply preposterous. It’s unlikely he’ll ever have a Congress as friendly to his views as he did from 2009-2011.
That demonstrates Romney’s difficulty. A lot of his base still have the 2008 campaign version of Obama in their heads — strange man, strange name, someone ‘not like us’ and potentially harboring anti-American or radical views. Movements like the ‘birther’ movement reflect that fearful reaction to a candidate so different from those of the past. Barack Obama represents what America is becoming, and the Tea Party movement in some part is driven by a nostalgia for the what America once was.
But the last four years have proven Obama to be a pragmatist, and certainly not on the left wing of the Democratic party. On the foreign policy front, the 2008 Obama clearly lacked foreign policy experience. The McCain camp had a strong claim that we couldn’t turn over foreign policy stewardship to someone so inexperienced while the US was involved in two wars and engaged in a counter-terrorism campaign. McCain was a war hero with a long history of expertise on military issues. McCain blew that advantage by his response to a domestic issue: the economic crisis. While Obama seemed measured and calm, McCain suspended his campaign, decided to cancel the first debate but quickly changed his mind, and appeared ineffective at a White House meeting about how to respond to the crisis. McCain looked impulsive and even reckless, Obama’s calm demeanor garnered trust.
Now foreign policy is a net winner for Obama, even while the right can raise numerous critiques. So expect Romney to go back to the “failed President” who is a “divider not a uniter” and whose policies “if anything slowed the recovery.” He can accuse the Democrats of “class war” and offer himself as a pragmatist who can unite. Simply, going after Obama personally isn’t going to work, it’ll make Romney look a little silly. He has to focus on competence, results, and presenting a strong alternative.
If Obama succeeds in defining Romney and the public perception by October is shaped by stories of Romney’s dog, clips of flip flops, and Romney as out of touch and not connecting, Obama’s chances for re-election are very strong. If not, Romney still needs to rely on the economy being at least soft in order to make his case. If the economy is seen as strengthening even slightly, Obama has the advantage. At this point the odds favor Obama, but the “definition game” remains crucial.