The Obama camp can’t be pleased with the reelection campaign’s official kickoff. The predominant story lines coming from his Virginia and Ohio campaign events were: The Ohio State University auditorium didn’t fill up and this is a campaign running on faded nostalgia. (“At times, the rallies had the feeling of a concert by an aging rock star: a few supporters were wearing faded ‘Hope’ and Obama 2008 T-shirts, and cheers went up when the president told people to tell their friends that this campaign was ‘still about hope’ and ‘still about change.’”
These would be problems for any candidate, but they are especially acute for President Obama for several reasons.
First, his winning coalition in 2008 was unusually dependent on new and occasional voters who were highly motivated to turn out for him to be part of a historic breakthrough on race and because of an uplifting message. If Obama literally and figuratively can’t fill up the seats with his most devoted fans he’s in trouble.
Second, Obama’s ability to hold on to moderate swing voters and even bolster support from that segment of the electorate (to make up for erosion in young voters and a decline in minority turnout) is hampered by the economy. As Dan Balz aptly out it, “Obama’s biggest opponent may be an economy that is still struggling to gain the kind of momentum that will convince voters that the recession is truly over. It was perhaps a coincidence in timing that the president’s opening events came just a day after a tepid employment report that showed only modest private-sector job creation.”
Third, he has no — zero, zip, nada — positive message or agenda. His opening event featured harsh and moldy attacks on Mitt Romney and an appeal to the bygone days of 2008. There was not a single new initiative, proposal or plan — on the economy, on taxes, on foreign policy, on immigration, on anything.
It is noteworthy that in Post blogger Ezra Klein’s piece on Obama’s second-term agenda, he doesn’t find anything Obama himself outlined. There are things that should be done and things his “advisers see” as important, but that’s not the same as an actual, articulated agenda, is it? And to say fiscal matters will take center stage only serves to emphasize that we haven’t a clue what specific measures Obama will advance. On foreign policy the second term — here’s what Obama critics have been warning about — will give Obama more “flexibility” to do things like “rebalancing attention” away from the Middle East (!). Oh my. They’ll be breaking out the champagne in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow. It’s not Klein’s fault for letting on how thin (or scary) is the second-term agenda; there actually isn’t one — an agenda, that is.
And finally, the media, with notable exceptions, are not the patsies they were in 2008. They may suffer from a dearth of initiative to examine Obama’s record, but neither are they cheerleading. As the coverage cited above illustrates, they are laconically cynical. Yeah, Obama’s message is lame — let’s see if the voters will buy it.
Romney’s job is to fill that void where an Obama agenda (and any critical reporting on the lack of one) would go. He needs to pour in two ingredients: an unsparing dissection of Obama’s record and his own alternative agenda, which fortunately includes significant items such as tax and entitlement reform, adequate funding for defense, and moderation of what has become an abusive regulatory bureaucracy.
Much has been made about Romney’s shortcomings as a candidate. But judging from the Obama kickoff, the Romney campaign is miles ahead on messaging, substance and self-awareness.