This weekend, David Axelrod disclosed something on which both Republicans and Democrats agree. On CNN's “State of the Union,” Axelrod made the point that people don't know Mitt Romney yet. Many Republicans, including myself, agree with that, but we think this will be an advantage for Romney as the campaign proceeds. The more you know about him, the better you will like him.
The Obama campaign thinks the opposite. Axelrod makes clear that he believes the more voters are told about Romney, the less they will like him. He says ominously that the voters are “going to think this is very familiar: ‘We tried this — this was a big failure.’ ” Axelrod said Romney's policies look like George W. Bush's, saying they are “backward-looking and a repeat of what got us into this mess in the first place.”
It is remarkable to me that the Obama campaign still believes that Obama can blame Bush. It is obsessed. Whatever economic problems Bush caused, voters think by now, Obama should have been able to solve at least one of them — any one of them.
Axelrod's comment suggests he underestimates Romney; that Romney will be a target similar to Bush and the least attractive elements of the Republican Party. Axelrod deceives himself. Romney is not a good villain. Romney can be likable and fresh compared to Obama. People wish Obama well, but I'm not sure they will truly like him in November.
Axelrod is also being selective when he reads polling that suggests he can tie Romney to an unpopular Republican Party. It is easy to find a poll that reinforces the idea that the GOP and the GOP-led Congress have problems. But what is underreported is how well the Republicans are doing compared to Democrats in the generic congressional ballot. According to the RCP average, Republicans lead the generic ballot by almost 3 points.
The election will be between candidates, matched one-on-one. Bush won't be on the ballot. The Obama campaign can blast Romney with all the negatives it wants, but it can't escape the question of whether voters want more of the same or a change in the White House.
In campaigns, you can make a lot of tactical mistakes, but making only a couple of strategic mistakes can kill you. Thinking it can still blame Bush, underestimating the positive potential of Romney himself and choosing to believe the worst poll it can find for the GOP are all mistakes that I'm surprised — but glad — the Obama campaign appears to be making.