Mitt Romney accused the president of a “hide-and-seek” strategy in the election, concealing his plans for a second turn. (Liberals — honest — insist that because he made a secret offer and then backtracked on a “grand bargain” deal that President Obama really has told us what he wants to do.) That may be, but what we have seen this week is a nervous president acting like a school kid who rings the neighbor’s bell and runs away.
Obama went after Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hammer and tongs. But when called out on the extreme partisanship, the White House denied it was a political speech. When Obama went after the Supreme Court, the backlash was swift and, again, Obama and then his spokesman insisted we all got it wrong.
Is this a confident or even coherent strategy? No, but it is symptomatic of the fix that Obama is in. He had decided in lieu of an actual agenda to run a bare-knuckles campaign. He had a problem with his base, so he went far left and turned up the rhetoric on the Republicans. But now it is general-election time, and those critical swing voters don't like hyper-partisanship and may find the president’s outburst about the Supreme Court unpresidential. So Obama bob and weaves, sending his aide out to deny what the country heard.
This is not a tactic that will cheer the base. (He’s retreating again!) It’s not an approach that will win over independents. And it will sorely test Obama’s relationship with a press corps, which is certainly more cynical than in 2008, whe it swallowed “hope and change” hook, line and sinker.
This was a foreseeable dilemma for the president. Negativity only gets candidates so far, especially when it is a presidential campaign. Ultimately voters don’t want an angry, downer president. They do want “Morning in America” and “hope and change,” albeit with some grounding in reality.
In 2008 Obama ran a rather content-less campaign but a positive one. At the 2008 Democratic National Convention Obama declared, “This moment — this election — is our chance to keep, in the 21st century, the American promise alive.” This time he has neither an affirmative policy agenda (not one he is willing to tell us about) nor a positive tone. So in his purportedly non-political speech he intones, “This congressional Republican budget is something different altogether. It is a Trojan horse. Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism.” (Apparently he is saving “drowning puppies” for another speech.)
Ryan anticipated this gloom-and-doom, Republicans-are-out-to-starve- the- poor gambit. In a speech last October at the Heritage Foundation Ryan warned, “Instead of working together where we agree, the President has opted for divisive rhetoric and the broken politics of the past. He is going from town to town, impugning the motives of Republicans, setting up straw men and scapegoats, and engaging in intellectually lazy arguments, as he tries to build support for punitive tax hikes on job creators.”
Not much has changed since Ryan called Obama’s tune:
[A]ccording to the President’s logic, spending restraint is incompatible with a strong, well-functioning safety net. The belief that recipients of government aid are better off the more we spend on them is remarkably persistent. No matter how many times this central tenet of liberalism gets debunked, like Brett Favre, it just keeps coming back.
The President has wrongly framed Republican efforts to get government spending under control as hard-hearted attacks on the poor. In reality, spending on programs for seniors and for lower-income families continues to grow every year under the House-passed budget – it just grows at a sustainable rate. We direct tax dollars where they’re needed most, and stop spending money we don’t have on boondoggles we don’t need.
The President’s political math is a muddled mix of false accusations and false choices. The actual math is apolitical, and it’s clear: By the time my kids are my age, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects that the size of government will be double what it is today.
What we learned this week is that even the president doesn’t seem comfortable with a no-holds-barred onslaught, wholly negative campaign. Maybe beneath the spin and rhetoric Obama (or his advisers) agree with Ryan, who said of the “politics of division”: “This just won’t work in America. Class is not a fixed designation in this country. We are an upwardly mobile society with a lot of movement between income groups.” And an indefatigable sense of optimism an a distaste for “politics as usual” and the game of “personal destruction.” That is something 2008 Obama understood. (“We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together. It’s the kind of partisanship where you’re not even allowed to say that a Republican had an idea — even if it’s one you never agreed with. That kind of politics is bad for our party, it’s bad for our country.”) The 2012 Obama has become what the 2008 Obama ran against. We’ll see if he can get reelected by practicing what he preached against.