Is it time for Democrats to panic?
That’s what a growing number of party loyalists are wondering, amid a rough couple of weeks in which President Obama and his political operation have been buffeted by bad economic news, their own gaffes and signs that the presumed Republican nominee is gaining strength.
Obama’s team insists that it is unfazed by the recent bumps in the political road.
By November, “it’s going to be about: Who do I trust more in [his] approach to the debt? Who do I trust more to create middle-class jobs? Who do I trust more to create an energy future? Who do I trust more as it relates to Afghanistan?” said David Plouffe, who served as Obama’s campaign manager four years ago and is managing political strategy in the White House this time around.
“That’s what’s going to decide the election, not the contretemps of the moment,” he said in an interview. “We’re very cognizant of that.”
That kind of unflappability is a hallmark of the Obama political operation — and was a crucial ingredient in its success in 2008. But some Democratic veterans are wondering whether the reelection campaign, run by the same tight-knit group that led it four years ago, is equipped for what lies ahead.
“The bad thing is, there is no new thinking in that circle,” said one longtime operative in Democratic presidential campaigns who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Eight other prominent Democratic strategists interviewed shared that view, describing Obama’s team as resistant to advice and assistance from those who are not part of its core. All of them spoke on the condition of anonymity as well.
The latest alarm came in a memo Monday from Democracy Corps, a research group headed by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and political consultant James Carville.
Based on their analysis of focus groups conducted late last month among swing voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, they wrote that the current campaign message — which stresses the fragile progress of the economic recovery — is out of touch with the daily pain voters are feeling.
“We will face an impossible head wind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery, but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class,” Greenberg, Carville and pollster Erica Seifert wrote. They added: “They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle — and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand.”
The memo came days after Obama handed the Republicans new ammunition with his declaration at a news conference that “the private sector is doing fine.”
However difficult the task, the president may have little choice but to try to make voters feel better about the economy. Successful presidents have run for reelection on the strength of their records, as well as on the hope they offered for the future.
But successful presidents also have benefited from presenting voters a choice — between their stewardship and their rivals’. Obama’s defenders said that although the Greenberg data reflect voters’ frustrations with the economy, they are not a good gauge of Obama’s vision vs. that of GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
The president’s message “has been spot-on in terms of where we are and where we’re going,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
The latest economic news, including a report that the economy added only 69,000 jobs in May, made that challenge more difficult for Obama and his top strategists.
Obama will deliver a major campaign speech Thursday in Cleveland in which he will try to frame the election as a choice between two economic visions — one that protects the middle class and another that takes the country back to the failed policies of the past, campaign officials said.
“Now all the stories are about the flawed Obama team and strategy, which is ridiculous,” said Mark McKinnon, who was a top campaign strategist for George W. Bush. “They are not any more or less smart than they were four years ago. The dynamics are just different. This time, the wind is in their face instead of at their back.”
Still, some Democrats say that the campaign has lost its bearings at some turns recently. Some have suggested that the president’s team is flailing in its attacks against Romney.
When his campaign ran an ad criticizing the Republican’s methods as a corporate turnaround artist — with one laid-off worker describing him as “a vampire” — Newark Mayor Cory Booker described it as “nauseating” and former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell called it “disappointing.”
And when the campaign pivoted to an attack on Romney’s record as Massachusetts governor, Obama strategist David Axelrod held a news conference in Boston, only to be drowned out by pro-Romney supporters.
Plouffe dismissed the suggestion that the Obama operation has become too caught up in daily skirmishing.
Romney, Plouffe said, is “out there every day misrepresenting what the president has done on the economy, on spending, on foreign policy. Those things should not stand. But it’s also important for people to understand this isn’t simply a question of a referendum on the president. It’s a choice between two visions and two records.”
Running for reelection poses additional challenges for the political team that so successfully positioned Obama as an outsider and an agent of change in 2008.
For one thing, the candidate now has a day job and therefore cannot devote five or six days a week to the campaign trail as he did then. Indeed, Obama was slower off the mark even than his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Where Bush held his first big reelection campaign rally in March 2004, Obama’s did not step out for his until last month.
And where Obama was the one who had superior financial resources in 2008, this year he is virtually certain to be outgunned by the combined forces of the Romney campaign and its allied super PACs. In May, Romney and the Republican National Committee raised nearly $77 million, while Obama and the Democratic National Committee brought in $60 million.
There is still the power of the presidency. But the bully pulpit is not what it once was, given that this is an era in which people get information from far more sources than they did in the past.
Obama’s advisers say his campaign has advantages that will be critical if the race remains close. While the Republicans were slugging it out in a long and bitter primary, the Obama campaign was building its ground operation in key states — to a degree that Democrats think Romney won’t be able to match.
“They are laser-focused on the key 13 states, and within those key battleground states, there is a world of work being done,” said Durbin, who added that he has had three extensive briefings on Obama’s grass-roots operation.
Even compared with the impressive ground campaign of 2008, “they know more about the swing voters and how to reach them,” he said.