Why Obama abandoned audacity

September 30, 2012

If you had to sum up Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in one word, you might have picked the word "audacity."

It was audacious to believe a first-term senator from Illinois could become president. It was audacious to think a politician no one knew before the 2004 Democratic convention could overcome the Clinton machine. It was audacious to think a young black man with the middle-name "Hussein" could be elected president. It was audacious to think that a Democrat who'd always opposed the Iraq War and had no foreign-policy experience could beat a popular war hero while we were still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Obama knew it. "Audacity" is the word he picked to describe his campaign. He even titled his book "The Audacity of Hope." 

If you were going to pick a single word to define President Obama's reelection campaign, you definitely would not settle on "audacity."

Watch the video atop this post. It's an unusual two-minute ad that the Obama campaign is running in battleground states. "During the last weeks of this campaign, there will be debates, speeches and more ads," Obama says. "But if I could sit down with you, in your living room or around the kitchen table, here's what I'd say." 

This is, in other words, the fullest argument the Obama campaign is likely to present to swing-state voters. And it's a strange argument. It's not just a cautious case for Obama's reelection. There's nothing unusual about a timid politician. What's odd is that it's a timid argument for a president whose ideas are not timid. It's an argument meant to obscure the fact that Obama has better, bigger ideas than the ones he's telling you about. 

Typically, campaigns try to make incumbents look bigger than they really are, to overstate the scope of their accomplishments and their policies. Obama's campaign is trying to make the president look smaller than he is, to underplay their accomplishments and, in particular, the scope of their policies.

Take the economic plan Obama lays out in the above ad. Create a million new manufacturing jobs. Help businesses double their exports. Cut taxes for companies that invest in America. Cut oil imports in half. Produce more American-made energy. Train 100,000 new math and science teachers. Cut the growth of higher-education tuition. Reduce the deficit by $4 trillion. Use half of the savings from ending the Afghanistan war to invest in America.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the same agenda that Obama laid out in his convention speech. What's unusual about it is that, if you know what the Obama administration has actually proposed and done, this isn't their best agenda. Nothing on this list, for instance, would do nearly as much to create jobs as the American Jobs Act. Nothing on this list will do nearly as much to help ordinary Americans as simply protecting the Affordable Care Act until it begins insuring people in 2014. 

The Obama team knows all that, of course. There's a reason they're playing down the audacity of their first term and deemphasizing the policies that they think would do the most to help in a second. The American people, their research shows, are tired of audacity and skeptical of big ideas. They're willing to believe Obama has done about the best job he could have been expected to do given the collapse of the global economy and the intransigence of the Republicans. But if they're going to believe that, they're also not willing to believe that he's got all the answers now, or that his next big idea is the one that will really turn all this around. If they're going to lower their expectations, he needs to be more realistic in his promises. 

And so the Obama campaign is downsizing its ideas, at least for the remainder of the campaign. Call it the audacity of not telling people to hope for too much. Better to underpromise and, if all goes well, overdeliver, then to overpromise and lose the election.  

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