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In 2012 will Obama run on the politics of fear or hope?

Barack Obama

Within 24 hours over the holiday weekend, Democrats could read two starkly different messaging strategies for President Obama’s reelection campaign.

On Monday, May 28, Memorial Day, John Heilemann’s New York magazine article was headlined:  “For Obama & Co., this time it’s all about fear.”

The day before, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote a column headlined:  “Obama Should Seize the High Ground.”

Heilemann wrote:

“Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago running more negative ads than any campaign in history, what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier of Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. … ‘He’s the ’50s, he is retro, he is backward, and we are forward, that’s the basic construct,’ says a top Obama strategist. ‘If you’re a woman, you’re Hispanic, you’re young, or you’ve gotten left out, you look at Romney and say, ‘This “f--king guy is gonna take us back to the way it always was, and guess what? I’ve never been a part of that. … ’

“Thus to a very real degree, 2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear. For many Democrats, this is fine and dandy, for they believe that in the Romney-Republican agenda there is plenty to be scared of.”

The day before, Friedman wrote:

“I wonder how Barack Obama would do it if he ran for president as himself. How would he do if he ran for reelection on all the things he’s accomplished but rarely speaks about? … Is there anyone in America today who doesn’t either have a pre-existing medical condition or know someone who does and can’t get health insurance as a result? Yet two years after Obama’s healthcare bill became law, how many Americans understand that once it is fully implemented no American with a pre-existing condition will ever be denied coverage?

“Obama didn’t just save the auto industry from bankruptcy. Two years later, he also got all the top U.S. automakers to increase mileage for their vehicle fleets to 54.6 miles per gallon by 2025, from 27.5 mpg today. As Popular Mechanics put it, this ‘is the largest mandatory fuel economy increase in history.’ Did you know Obama did that?”

So which strategy is best?

Virtually every major national poll in the last several weeks has Obama and Romney somewhere in the mid-40s, in a statistical dead heat, with about 10 percent undecided. So for those who want Obama to win, the only relevant question should be:

What is the message that is most likely to win over these 10 percent?

Friedman supplies the answer.

“Had Obama gone to the country with more near-term stimulus married to Simpson-Bowles [the Deficit Reduction Commission proposals], he would have owned the left, independents and center-right. It would have split the Republicans and provided a real alternative to the radical Paul Ryan-Romney plan.

“In sum, Obama’s campaign right now feels as though it were made in a test tube by political consultants. It’s not the Obama we admire. Rather than pounding the country with ‘I have a plan’ — a rebuilding stimulus plus Simpson-Bowles — which would be an Obama message of hope, leadership and unity that would put him on higher ground that Romney can’t reach because of the radical GOP base, Obama is selling poll-tested wedge issues. I don’t think it’s a winner for him or America.”

The irony should be obvious: Those of us, such as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and this writer and many other Democrats who believe President Obama has a positive story to tell, are excoriated, including personal attacks with motives questioned, by those strident Obama supporters who prefer a negative campaign against Romney rather than defending the president’s record.

Keep your eyes on that undecided 10 percent in the middle, who will decide the election. Which message can best win them over — the positive message of hope, explaining the good things Barack Obama has accomplished, or the negative message, trying to scare people about how extreme Mitt Romney is? 

Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as Special Counsel to Dilworth Paxson. He is the author of the book “Scandal:  How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” and the forthcoming book, “Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life,” to be published by Simon & Schuster.

Lanny Davis, a Washington attorney and principal in the firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, specializing in legal crisis management and dispute resolution, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is the author of the new book, "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life," (Simon & Schuster March 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LannyDavis.