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General Election Off to a Bumpy Start for Obama

It won’t always be like this for Mitt Romney, but the presumptive Republican presidential nominee could hardly be happier about the way in which the general election season has begun.

“But the fact of the matter is, I think if you look at my track record, I’m raising a family here. When we travel, we got to travel through Secret Service, and Air Force One, that's not my choice. I think most folks understand how hard I work and how hard this administration is working on behalf of the American people.”

- President Obama in an interview with St. Louis television station KMOV answering a question about the first family’s extensive travels in an interview intended by the president to focus on his call for higher taxes on wealthy investors, like Mitt Romney.

For three consecutive weeks, President Obama’s re-election campaign has been blown off its talking points by unnecessary blunders. First it was the hot microphone bungle with Dmitry Medvedev and Obama’s post-election “flexibility” on U.S. missile defense, then it was warning the Supreme Court not to take the “extraordinary” step of overturning Obama’s health law and now it’s the president having to personally denounce the blunder of a B-list Democratic strategist who attacked Romney’s wife, Ann.

The idea was that Obama would open the full-fledged general election with a series of fusillades against Romney for his support of the House Republican budget overhaul plan, for what Vice President Joe Biden calls “the war on women” over sexual and economic issues and culminating in a week of attacks on Romney’s massive personal wealth and tax rates.

It has been an article of faith on both the right and left since 2008 that Obama is an extraordinarily gifted politician and that his campaign organization is full of wizards of messaging and organization. 

Even as Dana Milbank, a left-leaning columnist for the Washington Post, was panning Obama for the “gimmickry” of his melodramatic attack on Romney for using the capital gains rate to pay a tax rate of less than 15 percent, Milbank lamented the waste of Obama’s “unrivaled political skill.”

This is part of a set of beliefs that was encapsulated in the best-selling book by political journalists from New York magazine and MSNBC, “Game Change.” The HBO movie about the book was mostly about 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, but the book is more of a paean to Obama’s political skills and the effectiveness of his campaign organization. The title seems to refer mostly to Obama as the game-changing candidate in the arc of American political life.

Conservatives and liberals alike hew to this narrative. Even those who denounce the president’s policies in the strongest terms often marvel at his political skills and the nimbleness and efficacy of his never-ending campaign.

No doubt, Obama is more politically skilled than most Democrats on the national level since Bill Clinton and his campaign has been innovative and audacious. But after watching the blunders of the last three weeks, the narrative of Obama-the-invincible looks pretty much shot.

Obama, with months to prepare and tens of millions of dollars in the bank, badly muffed the opening round of the 2012 general election campaign.

In the 29 weeks to come, Mitt Romney will probably experience more days like the one Obama experienced yesterday as he and his campaign scuttled away from the comments made by erstwhile adviser Hilary Rosen on the Cable News Network. But on Thursday, it was Obama’s turn in the dunking booth.

Rosen declared that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” A big no-no about a candidate’s spouse, particularly when that spouse has been a stay-at-home mother of five who survived breast cancer, suffers from multiple sclerosis and, most dangerously, is a very effective campaigner.

Rosen was trying to reinforce the same narrative that Obama and Biden have been hammering away at this week: the Romney family is too rich and too callous to the concerns of ordinary Americans for Mr. Romney to deserve the presidency. Rosen was trying to reinforce the message Obama made the week before that staying at home is a “luxury” reserved for the wealthy. She blew it, and then twice compounded her error by trying to defend her stance. What is the point of a paid political operative who will not follow a politically expedient course?

Rosen eventually saw (or was made to see) the folly of her path and abjectly apologized, but in the course of her ego trip managed to thoroughly ruin what was supposed to be the rising crescendo of Team Obama’s attack on Romney’s wealth.

The plan was targeted to Tax Day and stirring resentments against Romney’s capital gains rate on his huge investment income and refusal, so far, to release the more than two decades of tax returns demanded by the Obama campaign. As Obama and Biden released their 2011 tax returns today, the goal was to have the Cable News Network and other establishment press outlets hounding Romney for the release of his 1040s dating back to the 1980s and to have Rosen and her fellow pundits blasting the former Massachusetts governor for not paying more in the years from which we have already seen Romney’s tax bill.

Rosen, as she fully demonstrated, is no big-time Democratic strategist. She is on the periphery of Team Obama. Her dozens of visits to the White House and multiple meetings with the president (though, as Press Secretary Jay Carney observed, there are multiple people in America named Hilary Rosen) were no doubt not to shape strategy, but to receive it.

Even so, the president ended up wasting what were supposed to be a series of interviews with swing-state local television reporters by explaining that he respected stay-at-home moms and that Ann Romney seemed like an admirable person. Obama wanted to be pumping up the pressure on Mitt Romney, not lauding his wife. It’s not Obama’s fault that Rosen was bad at her job, but his team seemed unable to deal with what should have been a small matter.

How is it possible that a woman who makes her living from the largesse of the Democratic Party needed nearly a full day to be convinced that defending a position she took in a television debate with another Democratic strategist and a Republican blogger was less important than the president’s re-election bid? One suspects that the campaigns of Bill Clinton in 1996 or George W. Bush in 2004 would not have needed so much time to make that case to foot soldier.

That Rosen made her stumble in service of a gambit that the president himself was caused to say was “a gimmick” makes the matter even more embarrassing.

But the previous two big blunders -- being incautious with a whispered message for Vladimir Putin and inveighing against the Roberts Supreme Court -- were not those of a peripheral strategist or his campaign team. They were his and his alone.

Romney is plenty gaffe-prone himself and his organization knows well the pain of days wasted on unforced errors. Any enjoyment Team Romney takes at watching the president endure the Rosen affair is surely tempered by the knowledge that the next seven months would bring plenty of similar days for the Republican nominee. The phrase “Gov. Romney will you denounce…” will not suffer from under-use this election cycle.

But having seen Team Obama and the president stumble through their spring offensive, the Romneyites can at least be happy to know that the political gifts of the president and his team are far less than advertised.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.