If their conclusion is no, the second is whether they think the president has the vision and the strength of leadership to get the country where they want it to go. He will be measured against that standard as much as against comparisons with Romney.
The president showed he has plenty of material to make the case against Romney and the Republicans, as he tries to avoid allowing the election to become a pure referendum on his record. His opening argument was also long on language of a rosy future that he said Americans could look to, but only if they reject what Romney is offering.
Romney’s advisers believe that kind of rhetoric will go only so far. They will try to push the voters back with something the former governor said on the night he won five primaries and essentially ended the Republican race. “The last few years have been the best Barack Obama can do,” he said. “But it’s not the best America can do.”
Whatever conclusions voters have drawn about his record, Obama is not a deeply disliked president. In fact, he is judged as considerably more likable a politician than his rival. Romney advisers already have conceded that if the election turns on likability, their man is in trouble. That is why Romney has turned to a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger characterization of the Obama record. He is playing on a sentiment that exists, and the president will have to rebut it.
The politics of now?
Obama’s case against Romney was well framed and argued with passion. What was missing — and has been in the president’s message — is something that looks to this moment. He talked about going back and going forward but did not talk so much about now. He did not explain to voters just where he believes the economy is right now, why it has not rebounded as quickly as anyone hoped, what the real obstacles to more rapid growth are and what exactly he plans to do to fix things.
Obama’s rally in Columbus included trademark elements of his campaign style, with an emphasis on grass-roots organizing, pushing the envelope on technology and efforts to arouse the passions of his followers. The crowd of 14,000 did not fill the 18,000-seat arena, but it eclipsed anything Republican candidates have shown this year.
Republicans noted the empty seats and suggested it showed that the Obama coalition is less enthusiastic about this campaign than the last one. White House senior adviser David Plouffe said the campaign is happy to have a debate about crowd size with Romney. A top campaign adviser said he is confident that the enthusiasm gap no longer tilts significantly to the advantage of the Republicans.
There is little likelihood that Obama can truly rekindle what he had in 2008, but that may not be necessary.
What he needs is an economy on the mend and a belief among the voters that he has a second-term agenda and the leadership to take care of unfinished business.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to washingtonpost.com/politics.