The president got roughed up more than a little in an interview with Univision, leading to one of the more revealing moments of the campaign. That President Obama has not been pressed by any U.S. TV network or English-language cable news interviewer speaks volumes about how uninterested the media are in doing anything but finding Mitt Romney gaffes and helping steer the news headlines in the president’s favor. (It also suggests Obama has not really been practicing all that hard for the debates, when the questions will presumably be tougher than those fluff-magazine sit-downs he’s been doing.)
The comment that has gotten the most attention, of course, is about “change,” which was the heart and soul of Obama’s 2008 message:
Mitt Romney swiftly pounced and will likely pound away in the days ahead. His best response may be his initial retort: “The president today threw in the white flag of surrender again. His slogan was ‘Yes, we can.’ His slogan now is ‘No, I can’t.’”
Liberals who have relished every Romney gaffe and have been thrilled by the appearance of a tape from a donor event (which turns out to have one or two minutes missing) are trying to slough it off. Good luck with that. The comment is too revealing and problematic to be swept under the rug by the Obama spin squad in the blogosphere and elsewhere.
With an economy this rotten and a large majority of voters saying we are on the wrong track, Obama must still make the case that it won’t be business as usual in a second term. He can’t very well admit his own impotence.
By contrast, the core of Romney’s argument is that Obama has been an underachiever, a big promiser in 2008 and an incompetent president from 2009-2012. He contends the tone and gridlock inside the Beltway is worse than ever. Obama’s comments are a powerful endorsement of that accusation. As Romney said yesterday, “The president of the U.S. says he can’t change Washington from the inside. Isn’t that amazing? No wonder he’s had such a hard time over the last four years.”
The most deadly missteps for a candidate are those that reinforce a preexisting concern. In Obama’s case, a main gripe is that he likes campaigning, where he can pump up the crowds and bask in their glow, but doesn’t get the actual job of governing.
He obviously is baffled by the ways of Washington. The debt ceiling battle is the best example. Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics,” is a vivid account of how he failed to rise to the occasion, refused to stand up to his own base and frittered the chance to reach across the aisle. He knows he failed. Voters know he failed. So what is the argument for giving him four more years, especially if he admits he’s not capable of leaving his mark on D.C.?
Obama’s admission, like his listless convention speech, also suggests the magic is gone. He’s no longer arguing for change; he just wants to hold on to power. But why? He hasn’t seemed interested in governing for the last year or so. He can’t get along with the other party. He doesn’t like presenting his own legislative proposals (on immigration, for example). So if he can’t deliver change and the country (even he agrees) isn’t operating as it should, why send him back for four more years? If nothing else, it doesn’t exactly thrill young voters to know that it’s their fault things haven’t changed sufficiently.
The comment not only affords Romney a break from the media caterwauling that he’s done for, but it also refocuses the campaign back on Obama and his serial failures in office. When Romney can make the argument that Obama has failed and he won’t do any better with more time — and have Obama provide some confirmation — that is a helpful development.
It’s now up to Romney to use the moment to seize the momentum back and to instill some hope in panicky supporters that this race is far from over. It also suggests Obama can be vulnerable in the debates, in which he may be overconfident and under-rehearsed.