The prevailing explanation for Barack Obama’s reelection amid a difficult economy is that — unlike in 2008 — it was more perspiration than inspiration. It was ground out on the margins. It was rooted in demographic bean-counting and a campaign to tear down Mitt Romney that was all prose and no poetry — a ruthless, systematic, data-driven dismantling of his character and qualifications on every level.
All of that is true. But it misses a major part of the story — that the Obama team also consciously built his reelection on a narrative designed to be as inspiring as the one that lifted him to victory in 2008, albeit in a different way. This year’s narrative turned on the sheer range and scale of obstacles Obama faced — the story of a leader who perseveres relentlessly in the face of extraordinary conditions to improve the future of the middle class.
This storyline is key to Obama’s ability to defy the odds and survive, something that continues to flummox his opponents, just as Bill Clinton’s survival skills mystified his. And in the ultimate twist, Republicans themselves helped Obama build this narrative. Nope — Obama didn’t build that. Not alone, anyway.
Obama’s original victory was improbable enough. But consider the extraordinary hurdles he overcame to win reelection. He won despite:
1) Inheriting an economy in free fall and a crisis that is proving deeper and more intractable than anything since the Great Depression.
2) Facing an extraordinarily determined opposition that sought to deliberately deny Obama any cooperation of any kind, on the gamble that the sitting president would bear the blame for failing to unite the country, for government dysfuntion in the face of crisis, and for the failure of the economy to heal.
3) Being the target of an unprecedented barrage of hundreds and hundreds of millions in outside ad spending, one that painted a dire picture of the Obama economy and widespread economic suffering in hard-hit battleground states for months.
Obama guru David Axelrod is a believer in the centrality of storytelling to politics — he has been described as “the keeper of Obama’s narrative.” Faced with terrible economic conditions and an implacable opposition, Obama’s brain trust knew Obama would only survive if he ran a scorched earth campaign designed to tear apart his opponent. But the Obama team also married this to an uplifting narrative about Obama that appropriated the very economic and political obstacles he faced.
The importance of the Obama narrative
The chosen storyline was dominant throughout. The Obama camp ran spots showing dramatic stills of him grappling early on with just how dire the economic crisis had become. It ran ads painting his willingness to battle GOP opposition as a sign of strength and character. It ran spots portraying his embrace of the unpopular auto-bailout to help struggling workers as an act of political heroism. The contrast with Romney “turning his back” on the auto industry was pure cinema. And so was one of the Obama camp’s most important closing spots, which featured Morgan Freeman cinematically intoning: “Every president inherits challenges. Few have faced so many.”
The Obama team long believed that Republicans themselves were contributing to this storyline. By putting up unprecedented roadblocks at a time of national crisis, they may have only reinforced voters’ sense that whatever their disappointment with the recovery, Obama is the one who can ultimately be trusted to fight relentlessly on behalf of their interests. Poll after poll found the GOP brand in tatters. And poll after poll — despite relentless attacks on Obama as out of touch with economic suffering — continued to find strong trust in him to fight for the middle class.
The economic metric that really mattered
Ultimately, the “middle class” question may have proven the more important metric than the question that often favored Romney — who can be trusted to handle the economy, which speaks to technical know-now, not values or character. Romney’s narrowly tailored “Obama failed and I’m Mr. Fix It” economic message just didn’t resonate. A survey taken just before the election by Obama pollster Joel Benenson found that majorities believed the crisis Obama inherited was “extraordinary” and that it could not be fixed in four years. And independents said by 54-40 that they’d rather have a president who is willing to “fight for middle class families” rather than one who has a “technical understanding of the economy.”
Sure, painting Romney relentlessly as disconnected from and even disdainful of the challenges ordinary Americans face was pivotal. But the contrast between that picture and Obama’s willingness to fight for the kind of economy and future they want may have been even more pivotal — a picture perhaps further reinforced by the extraordinary conditions Obama faced, including those created by his GOP opponents.
Republicans have long been mystified by Obama’s ability to retain his bond with voters in defiance of conditions that self-evidently seemed to doom him. If they just prevented Obama from succeeding, he’d surely sink under the fundamentals — voters originally transfixed by his transformative 2008 candidacy would “break up” with him and opt for someone who could unite Washington and fix things faster. The ultimate irony is that this miscalculation may have led Republicans themselves to unwittingly conspire in creating the narrative that enabled Obama to survive.