Published May 31, 2012
“The president wants to make this a personal attack campaign; he’s going after me as an individual. Look, I’m an American, I love this country. I have experience in the economy that’s going to help me get good jobs for Americans so we can be secure again.”
-- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in an interview with FOX News colleague Bill Hemmer.
President Obama has adopted a new, tough-guy persona for the general election, but so far it doesn’t seem to be paying off.
Obama, stung for years by complaints from his political base that he was a pushover and facing a Republican rival clearly unafraid to throw punches, the president is trying to show some edge.
The opening argument of the general election from Obama has been weeks of attack ads and harsh personal attacks on the character of GOP nominee Mitt Romney. On the stump, Obama has called out Romney by name and said that the former Massachusetts governor was too cruel to be president.
Simultaneously, the administration is touting the president’s role as a terrorist killer. The lavishly leaked New York Times piece on how Obama passes sentence on suspected terrorists for push-button assassinations overseas, including American citizens, is part of a longer effort to show Obama has evolved from his dovish days.
The new message from Obama: Times are tough, and so am I.
One of Obama’s leading biographers John Heilemann, laid out the new-look Obama persona in New York Magazine. His extensively sourced, well-reported piece shows the Obama organization remade as a blunt instrument. Profane, tough-talking, cynical campaign leaders explain why they are trying to absolutely destroy Romney. Short answer: because that’s what it takes to win.
One adviser explains to Heilemann that even though some voters are presumably racist, Romney can be shown to be such a villain that they would still prefer the company of the half-African-American Obama:
“[Romney is] not likable. He’s not trustworthy. He’s not on your side. You live in Pittsburgh and you’ve got dirt under your fingernails, who do you want to have a beer with? It ain’t f***ing Mitt Romney. You’re like, ‘S**t, I’d rather have a beer with the black guy than him!’”
His point is that even those who bitterly cling (in this case, to an ice-cold can of Iron City instead of guns and religion) can be made to find Romney more personally objectionable than Obama.
This swagger is comforting to some Democrats who worried that Team Obama lacked the thick-skin and aggressive instincts to do battle with Romney, who has a gift for getting in the heads of his political opponents.
Attack politics are hardly new to the Obama organization, but the concern among many on the Blue Team was that the president wasn’t taking the threat from Romney seriously.
There’s little doubt of that now. No incumbent American president has ever gone so negative, so early against an opponent. As in other cases, like dropping out of federal limits on campaign contributions in 2008 or blessing unlimited political action committee expenditures this year, Obama’s argument is that he has no choice but to do what is wrong now in order to have the power to do the right thing later on.
The rationalization for the harsh new Obama approach is that unless Democrats destroy Romney now, the president will get swamped in a flood of negative advertising from conservative groups in the fall. By making it ugly, early Obama hopes to press his advantage in organization and money while it still exists and define Romney as a bad man.
So far, though, it’s not going so well.
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Romney’s favorability ratings are up 8 points since late March, just before the Obama launched his spring offensive. Obama’s numbers are going the other direction, down 4 points.
The worrisome thing for the president is where this movement is happening. While Romney can credit much of his gains to the gradual coalescence of the Republican Party following the flame-throwing final act of their nominating process, swing voters are moving Romney’s way.
Romney showed substantial favorability gains among moderates, independents and saw his largest jump among female voters, a full 10 points. Obama, on the other hand, lost ground in all of the key categories. While Obama still holds a 5-point edge in overall favorability, Romney does 4 points better on unfavorability.
Put simply, 97 percent of voters have an opinion on Obama, and it’s an even split. Voters are also evenly divided on Romney, but only 88 percent have rendered a decision.
Romney has more room to grow, or, as Obama hopes, farther to fall.
Team Obama understands well the risks of negative campaigning, especially for a candidate whose previous persona was one of hopeful change and healing. But their calculation is that they can afford to take the beating now for the sake of ruining Romney and then have time in the fall to shift back to a less grim message.
The goal is that when Obama takes the stage to formally accept the Democratic nomination in Charlotte, that he will find a way to unite and inspire and that swing voters will have forgotten or forgiven his spring and summer attacks. Remember, Obama and his team very much believe in his power to reset the debate with a speech. Obama’s oration at Bank of America Stadium will be a seriously high-stakes affair.
Team Obama says it wants a replay of the 2004 election, just a pumped up version. Incumbents in tough times want choice elections, a referendum on issues, rather than stewardship elections, a referendum on the leadership of the incumbent.
In 2004, the choice was about the Iraq war. John Kerry wanted to leave, George W. Bush wanted to stay the course. Lots of things were said and done, but the election boiled down to that choice: stay or go.
Team Obama says the choice this time is between “forward” and “a return to the failed policies of the past.” This choice devolves quickly into minutiae about tax rates, mortgage incentive programs, Pell grants and other policy points. There is nothing like the starkness of the choice in 2004. Kerry explicitly wanted to leave Iraq. Bush explicitly wanted to stay. Voters narrowly chose the latter.
Given the repetitive nature of Obama’s policy proposals in the past two years, it seems highly unlikely that he will be offering any such bright-line choices. Certainly he could make it a choice election about his policies, particularly his 2010 health law, but that would not work out very well.
The actual choice Obama is seeking is between the two men personally and is right now whaling away on Romney in a hope that the dirty-fingernail set in the swing states will deem the former Massachusetts governor and quarter-billionaire unacceptable.
But unless Obama can crystallize for voters what the real choice here is, Obama risks just looking mean spirited and nasty, the very qualities he hopes voters come to see in Romney.
The Day in Quotes
“It has been clear for years that the Obama administration believes the shadow war on terrorism gives it the power to choose targets for assassination, including Americans, without any oversight. On Tuesday, The New York Times revealed who was actually making the final decision on the biggest killings and drone strikes: President Obama himself. And that is very troubling.”
-- New York Times editorial, “Too Much Power for a President.”
“…some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance.”
-- Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking before the Council of Black Churches, decrying efforts in some states to require voters to show identification.
“Obviously, the world economy is still in a delicate place because of what’s going on in Europe and the fact that some of the emerging countries have been slowing down.”
-- President Obama alluding to signs of a weakening economy in a speech given ahead of signing a re-authorization of the Import-Export Bank.
"Sex-selection abortion is extreme violence against unborn baby girls and their mothers.”
-- Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., speaking in support of a bill he has sponsored that would enact a federal ban on gender-based abortion.
"This has come up because I think somebody decided politically it was a difficult place to put people in. [But] any interpretation that voting against this bill is therefore for abortions for the purposes of selecting gender would be wrong – period."
-- House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer talking to reporters about Franks’ legislation, due for a vote today.
The Big Numbers
-- Decrease in membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees chapter that represents Wisconsin state workers since the state stopped automatically collecting dues from worker paychecks last spring, according to the Wall Street Journal. Statewide, the union’s overall membership dropped from 62,818 to 28,745.
-- Lead by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election, according to a survey of likely voters by Marquette University Law School.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“You have to ask yourself, how could a feminist oppose this legislation? After all, gender selection [in abortion] is the ultimate in gender discrimination. It's the killing of a female -- it's almost always a female -- in utero, and you would expect a huge protest.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.