The question I asked Sara Fagen, who was President George W. Bush’s political director, about what Mitt Romney is doing right in his mesmerizingly bad campaign was actually a two-pronged query. The other half was directed at Anita Dunn, the former communications director for President Obama.
When compared to the Romney campaign, the folks running the president’s reelection effort are doing an excellent job. So I asked Dunn at the “Women of Washington” event hosted by the Atlantic, what are the three things the Obama campaign is doing wrong. Dunn didn’t acknowledge any glaring missteps by the Chicago crew. But she did admit to a concern about overconfidence, that there was room for improvement in getting out the president’s message and that there was a failure to appreciate the impact of super PACs early enough.
“I always get concerned about overconfidence,” Dunn said rather haltingly. “Although I do not think right now that the Obama campaign is overconfident, because they have not been, by and large, throughout this election process.”
This is especially hazardous for an incumbent president’s campaign heading into the debates; the first is Oct. 3. Dunn cautioned — rightly, I might add — that Romney won’t be a pushover in any of those three gatherings next month.
“Obviously, Mitt Romney has debated 20 times through the primaries,” she said. “He is a very good debater. He is a disciplined, smart person who is putting an enormous amount of time” into preparing for the debates with Obama.
This is wise counsel. While she’s concerned about overconfidence from the Obama campaign, I’m concerned about overconfidence from Obama supporters. That Romney and his campaign are in their own vortex of hell has led to all sorts of cheering on the left. Some believe this campaign is over. It’s not. And thankfully the folks in Chicago realize it’s not, too.
“The second thing,” Dunn continued, “is there is always room for improvement in laying out that vision of what comes next. You get very few opportunities as a candidate or as a president to lay out your vision clearly for the American people.”
Dunn said she believes Obama “has done well” in discussing “what the path forward is” for the country. But she added that he “could probably do even better in the next phase of the campaign.” Yes, the president could. More specifics on job creation, entitlement reform and tax reform would not only give voters something to ponder, but they would also show them a leader.
“[P]robably not understanding intellectually the super PAC issue coming out of 2010” was the third area of concern for Dunn. “Understanding the . . . effects of super PACs is something we’re all coming to grips with,” she continued. “What super PACs have allowed the Romney campaign to do is to save all their own money and outspend the Obama campaign during the summer on media, including trying to put states into play that weren’t battleground states. And that phenomenon, which is something we didn’t experience at all in 2008, is something that wasn’t maybe factored in as early as it could have been.”
Money doesn’t buy elections. Messaging does. Obama and his super PAC might be trailing in the dash for cash, but the president’s “I need a little more time to make things right” message — and his personal likability — are sustaining him right now. If he can put a little more meat on the message bones and guard against overconfidence, he could win this thing.