With his decision to embrace an independent super PAC last week, President Obama issued a plea for deep-pocketed allies to help his campaign fight back against Republican rivals in the increasingly expensive and sophisticated arena of television attack ads.
Now, the Obama campaign is putting out a call for its grass-roots network to join the battle for free.
On Monday, the president’s reelection team will unveil a trio of Web sites dedicated to providing supporters with information on the president’s record — and more than a little dirt on his Republican rivals. The campaign has named it Obama’s “Truth Team,” and the goal is to arm millions of surrogates with the facts, figures and talking points they need to engage in ground-level political combat — on their Twitter and Facebook feeds and in old-fashioned conversations with friends and neighbors.
“We believe that our grass-roots supporters persuading their networks to support the president will provide us with the decisive edge in November,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “We’re providing them with the tools they need to amplify the president’s record, fact-check the Republicans’ attacks and prevent the Republicans from rewriting the history of their records.”
The strategy is a modern adaptation of the rapid-response teams that Bill Clinton pioneered in his 1992 war room, where aides monitored multiple televisions to respond as quickly as possible to GOP attacks. But it also reflects a dispiriting acknowledgment by the Obama campaign that his 2012 reelection bid promises to be as ugly and bruising as his 2008 insurgent effort was uplifting — and the war must be waged at even the day-to-day micro level.
“As technology has developed, this process has developed,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “I remember some years ago when it was avant-garde to fax talking points to a list of party people who had given you their fax numbers. Now, it’s much faster, but it’s the same basic principle.”
LaBolt cast the approach as a way for ordinary Americans to level the playing field in the face of the glossy television ads funded by super PACs that are raising tens of millions for Republican candidates, including Restore Our Future, backing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Winning Our Future, supporting former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
More likely, however, the Web sites are more likely to accelerate the already bitter, ideological migration of the fight for the White House on the Web.
Of the three Truth Team portals, just one, KeepingHisWord.com, could be described as positive in tone, listing Obama’s accomplishments. A sample page provided by the campaign has the headline “Fighting for the U.S. Auto Industry” and explains that Obama extended “emergency loans” to Chrysler and GM in 2009. Now, the Detroit auto companies “are creating jobs.”
The other two sites are far more negative. AttackWatch.com aims to rebut political attacks against Obama. A sample page deconstructs Romney’s contention that January’s upbeat jobs report was a byproduct of private-sector innovation, not Obama’s policies.
“Governor Romney implies that his job creation record in Massachusetts is something to brag about,” the text reads. “In fact, the state ranked a dismal 47th out of 50 in job creation during his tenure.”
The third Web site, KeepingGOPHonest.com, allows Obama supporters to play offense, providing damaging material about his rivals. A sample page ridicules Romney’s comment during a Republican primary debate in South Carolinathat he has lived on the “real streets of America” and lists his connections to Washington lobbyists.
Asked about the approach, Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney, accused the president’s campaign of practicing a politics of “personal destruction.”
The Obama campaign has arranged for surrogates — including members of Congress and state politicians — to lead the Truth Teams in battleground states. In Arizona, which Obama lost in 2008 but the campaign eyes as a potential win because of the growing Hispanic population, state Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) said that he fights back when he hears people say that Obama caused the mortgage meltdown and that his administration lost more jobs than any in history.
“On the loonier side, when I talk to Republicans in the state legislature I have to remind them he’s an American citizen,” Gallego said. “We have to be prepared for the dirtiness coming from the other side. They’re desperate.”
In 2008, Obama’s campaign produced a Web site called “Fight the Smears” to counter rumors that Obama was a Muslim and born in Indonesia.
But the approach can backfire, as the Obama team learned last fall when it debuted AttackWatch.com and the site was ridiculed by conservatives for the over-the-top, alarmist design — red lettering on a black background. The Obama campaign said 1 million supporters signed up on the site, but it has since been redesigned.for the re-launch Monday.
Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who is analyzing the effect of social media on politics, said television ads remain the dominant form of broad-based communications for the campaigns. But she pointed to the power of the Web in fomenting political backlash.
“It makes a lot of sense that in 2012 you have to think of rapid response differently because of the proliferation of outlets,” Greenberg said. “This is very much like efforts of the past, but recognizing there are lots of ways people get information and covering all of those bases.”