The Republican National Committee released a new ad today starring a former supporter of Obama who is in the process of breaking up with a cardboard cutout version of the President. The ad (which, it turns out, stars a Republican staffer) is light-hearted in tone, but it captures something fundamental about this race. Here’s what the woman says, more in sorrow than in anger:
Listen: This just isn’t working. It’s been four years. You’ve changed. You’re spending is out of control. You’re constantly on the golf course. And you’re always out with Hollywood celebrities....your jobs council says you haven’t even showed up in six months. You’re just not the person I thought you were. It’s not me. It’s you. I think we should just be friends.
The ad’s tagline: “Tell us why you’re breaking up with President Obama, at BreakUpWithObama.com.”
I’ve probably suggested this too many times now, but each time an ad like this appears, it’s worth reiterating. The GOP theory of the race seems grounded in the assumption that many Obama voters are reluctant to part ways with him for purely emotional and symbolic reasons. They personally like him; they understand he inherited an unthinkably difficult situation; and they don’t want this historic and transformative presidency to end in rejection. These voters believe Obama’s performance merits replacing him, or are close to believing this, but they hesitate to boot him from office because it will make them feel guilty. So the ad tells these voters that they can feel okay about breaking up with Obama because, ultimately, he is the one who created sky high expectations for himself; it’s not your fault he let you down. “It’s not me. It’s you.”
Americans for Prosperity is also running an ad featuring former Obama supporters saying (again more in sorrow than in anger) that they feel duped by Obama’s promise of hope and change.
But the thinking underlying these ads may neglect another possibility: What if the Obama supporters the Romney camp is trying to woo (but apparently has yet to win in the numbers he needs) are reluctant to part ways with him for substantive reasons?
The two ads cited above do make something of a substantive case against Obama. The first cites the debt and the failure of Obama’s council; the second says Obama failed to bring new jobs or reduce spending, with one former supporter saying: “he inherited a bad situation, but he made it worse.” The basic idea is that many Obama voters have decided he fell disqualifyingly short but need to be told they can feel okay about ending his presidency.
But what if this isn’t how they see things? Perhaps these targeted voters are taking a more nuanced view of the economy and the Obama presidency, and are in the process of choosing between Obama’s ideas, priorities, values and vision and those of Romney. In his speech, Bill Clinton may have articulated another strain of their perceptions and thinking when he said: “No president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years. He has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.”
Republicans will contest this by pointing to Obama’s high disapproval rating on the economy. But voters can disapprove on this front while simultaneously being tempted to see things roughly the way Clinton articulated them. They disapprove of the pace of the recovery but find it understandable, given the circumstances, and agree that we’re moving in the right direction, however slowly. I’m convinced that this is how the Obama campaign — which does intensive research into these voters — thinks they see things. And if this is right, then these voters will need to hear a far more affirmative case from Romney as to why they should place their faith in him. Simply telling them that they don’t have to feel guilty about “breaking up” with Obama may not be enough.