Three years after storming the White House with the “fierce urgency of now,” President Obama has a new message for his reelection campaign: Be patient, democracy is big and tough and messy.
“When I said, ‘Change we can believe in,’ I didn’t say, ‘Change we can believe in tomorrow,’ ” Obama told a crowd of 2,400 during a birthday celebration in Chicago this month.
The paring back of expectations has been an increasingly necessary part of Obama’s rhetoric, given the economic and political realities that have beset his presidency. But as the president prepares for his reelection campaign, his triumphant 2008 message of “hope and change” has undergone a radical transformation, from messianic to just plain messy. The candidate who once dazzled audiences with his soaring rhetoric is still searching for a compelling sales pitch to persuade voters to give him more time to accomplish his goals.
This week, the campaign offered supporters free bumper stickers that read simply “2012,” with the campaign’s Web site address but no slogans whatsoever.
“Two and a half years later, it’s been tough, and there have been setbacks,” Obama said at a private Manhattan fundraiser two weeks ago. He conceded that some of his supporters have lost some enthusiasm. “They’ve still got the Obama poster, but it’s all kind of frayed. And Obama is grayer. He doesn’t seem as cool,” the president said.
Obama has played these lines for laughs all summer, but the self-effacing humor is acknowledgment of the shortfall in “hope and change” during his first three years in office.
Since January 2009, the unemployment rate has risen from 7.6 percent to 9.1 percent, the number of people out of work from 11.6 million to 14 million, and the national debt from $10.6 trillion to $14.6 trillion. Meanwhile, the president’s job approval ratings have gone in the other direction, falling from 65 percent after his first 100 days to his all-time low of 40 percent in recent polls.
“Americans know that we didn’t get into these challenges overnight, and we’re not getting out of them overnight,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “The president in 2008 ran on taking on the big challenges plaguing the country for generations. That’s exactly what he’s done in office.”
But “Big challenges plaguing the country for generations” is no match for “Yes, we can” in the slogan department, and the sluggish economy could make it difficult for the president to build his reelection effort around his accomplishments, such as stabilizing the flailing auto industry, pushing through major health-care reform and killing Osama Bin Laden. Instead, in sharp contrast to 2008, Obama has begun to outline a more negative strategy that contrasts him with obstinate Republicans who have tried to block his agenda.
“A successful campaign will heavily focus on the radical, do-nothing Republican Congress. That will resonate with people,” said Robert Creamer, a strategist for the progressive Americans United for Change. “Most [Americans] believe Obama shares their values and their concerns, and where he has failed them is his effectiveness to improve the economy. It seems to me the case the campaign needs to make is that that failure is a consequence of the damage created by Republicans and the refusal of Congress to take the necessary steps that he proposed for the economy.”
Despite his difficulties, the president raised a record-breaking $86 million for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee last quarter, and some analysts suggest he could surpass $1 billion by next November. LaBolt said the campaign had 260,000 new donors last quarter and 12,000 applicants for summer volunteer positions, more than in 2008. The big question, however, is whether Obama can generate anywhere near the levels of enthusiasm he did three years ago.
In 2008, Obama was a relative newcomer when compared with his opponents, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican John McCain, and his inspiring, if vague, campaign themes allowed supporters to project their own meanings onto his candidacy.
“There’s something about a campaign that can lead to unreal expectations,” said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian and author. “He had this among his supporters who, before he had even been sworn in, were already comparing him to Abe Lincoln and FDR. Some of his supporters thought he could transform the real world, but no one can transform the real world.”
Nearly three years later, Obama seems all too human. A new Pew Research Center survey found that 47 percent of Americans believe Obama is not a strong leader, and 50 percent think he can’t get things done.
In an interview this week, Yosi Sergant, who commissioned the iconic “Hope” poster that was created by Shepard Fairey, said he understands when Obama talks about supporters with frayed posters.
“There’s a broad group of people who make up that torn ‘Hope poster’ place,” Sergant said. “We see the challenge that this administration has faced, see them working tirelessly. . . . We see what we want happening, but happening slowly and against tremendous opposition. Do we wish the momentum could have been maintained? Absolutely. But I don’t blame Obama for that.”
In early September, Obama will deliver a major speech on jobs that likely will try to further establish a contrast between the president and his Republican adversaries. But this time around, the argument for the president’s reelection might in many ways be outside his immediate oratorical control.
“His difficulty is that the case for him is not one that can be made rhetorically by him,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor and author of “The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Messages Shaped the 2008 Election.”
“The case will be made by numbers: Is the stock market up or down, is the jobs number up or down, unemployment, housing starts?” Jamieson said. “There’s a tendency to overpromise and overestimate the power of the presidency. He made all those mistakes as a candidate. It helped him get elected. But it all but guaranteed he would fail to meet the expectations in his governance.”
At a town hall-style appearance at the University of Maryland last month, a student asked Obama to identify his biggest regret. He said that he had oversold the optimism during his 2008 campaign and should have been more blunt with the public about the depths of the economic crisis.
“People expected us to be able to solve it in the first year,” the president said. “We knew when I took office that it was going to take a while.”
In Chicago, Obama went even further: “I have to admit, I didn’t know how steep the climb was going to be. Because we didn’t realize — we just found out a week ago that the economy that last few months in 2008 was even worse than we had realized.”
Obama’s advisers say his supporters will mobilize once they know which Republican will challenge Obama next fall. Voter intensity can be driven as much by dislike of a challenger as by enthusiasm for the incumbent. This is their hope.