The widespread, and I would argue entirely warranted, perception among conservatives is that the president wants to talk about everything but the economy. We went from the “war on women” to “Life of Julia”(a defense of the welfare state combined with pandering to single women) to gay marriage. His kick-off speech was remarkably negative, focused on Mitt Romney in an effort to cement the perception that Romney is an out-of-touch, rich guy. And when he’s not attacking Romney directly, Obama attacks the Bush presidency, as if Bush were his opponent.
In this the media has certainly helped. As Brit Hume said of The Post’s front page, multi-thousand word piece on Romney’s high school antics, “This thing, at almost book length with an enormous splash on the front page, was all about this one incident, unconnected — indeed, I would say even disconnected from anything else we know . . . about Romney. So the point is I don’t — I think it — I think it was much ado about not very much.”
But is not talking about the economy a good idea for Obama? It’s an odd strategy, when you think about it. If the voters, by an overwhelming margin, consider the economy the most important issue, and Romney says the president is in over his head, doesn’t the distraction-campaign play into Romney’s narrative? You would think so.
Obama’s rates consistently poorly in poll after poll on his handling of the economy. Unless Obama can change that perception (by justifying his performance), enjoys an unexpected burst of economic good news (the reverse seems to be the case) or convince Americans that other issues are more important (very unlikely), that view is going to become more entrenched as time passes. In essence, Obama is trying to run out the clock when he is behind.
From Romney’s standpoint, the president’s campaign of distraction presents both challenges and opportunities.
First, Romney has to strike a balance between defending himself and responding to issues of the day, on one hand, and sticking to his economy-is-the-whole-ball-of-wax message, on the other. To a large extent, he can delegate the rapid response to his staff or surrogates, but at certain points the candidate himself has to step in (as he did on Chen Guangcheng and on gay marriage) to state his position.
Second, he would do well to use Obama’s distraction-a-thon as powerful evidence of the president’s failings on the economy. Romney can cite the unemployment rate, the poverty rate and a bevy of other statistics to demonstrate this recovery is puny. But Obama’s topic-switching is an admission against evidence, a sort of refusal to look the voters in the eye and tell them why things aren’t better. Romney should say it, again and again: If Obama had done a good job, he would be talking about the economy.
And finally, Romney, who has been accused of being a slippery pol, has the opportunity to turn the tables and make this an issue of character, the country’s character, that is. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) put it best in an interview last week when he told me: “This election is about having an adult conversation with adults of this country to elect an adult to fix this country.” Obama in essence is acting like the college kid who doesn’t want to buckle down and work, and spends his time trying to encourage others to be just as irresponsible.
Romney’s message, at its core, is that the country is better than Obama. At times he’s said as much. (“The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it’s not the best America can do.”) But asking voters to show they are grown-ups, worthy of respect and a gimmick-free campaign, can both inspire voters ( yeah, we are up to this!) and belittle the president. Romney is wise not to force voters to dislike Obama in order to vote against him, but he certainly wants to make the case Obama has not taken his responsibility seriously. And what better evidence of that is Obama’s snark-filled, entirely negative strategy of misdirection?
Obama’s distraction campaign is enticing for the media, which love nothing better than a new storyline every few days. The stories are spoon-fed by the White House. And — wink, wink — the stories are designed to put Romney on defense. But in this instance, the media’s and president’s co-dependent relationship, based on a mutual love of the trivial, the unimportant and the snarky, may not be in Obama’s self-interest. We’ll find out soon enough.