Power Play

Obama talks of unity and optimism as his campaign intensifies attacks

"The mistake of my first term - couple of years - was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."

-- President Obama in an interview with CBS News.

Power Play readers know of the fondness President Obama has for the Michael Scott Defense: My greatest weakness? I try too hard and I care too much.

And when asked by CBS' Charlie Rose about his biggest mistake of his term, Obama deployed a version of that self-flattery through self-criticism that he has been using since his party got smoked in the 2010 midterm elections.

Obama has many times lamented how he was so focused on constructing good policies and managing a national crisis that he forgot to focus enough on politics and selling those policies. The claim left many in Washington gobsmacked.

A president who had been remarkably uninterested in the content of even his signature legislation, a new health-insurance entitlement program, and who had seemingly never left the campaign trail was lamenting his over-emphasis on wonky policy?

This is a form of self-flattery that might have been more accepted from Bill Clinton, who was known for his deep dives on details, than from Obama who has his aides append boxes for him to check at the end of policy recommendations.

The problem with this argument for Obama is twofold.

First, it is a cleaned-up version of Obama's 2008 comments that small-town Pennsylvanians reject liberalism and "cling to their guns or religion." Obama was actually taking up the case of these bitter clingers to an audience of wealthy Bay Area liberals, saying that it was up the left to coax these frightened beasts out of the darkness and into the light like a scared kitten caught in a drainpipe.

Obama's regret to Rose that he was too focused on saving the nation to tell frightened voters "a story" certainly smacks of condescension. The shorter version of Obama's regret: That he overestimated the electorate.

Power Play is not suggesting that the president ought to have told Rose that his greatest mistake was taking up his health law at a time of economic uncertainty and then pushing through an unpopular law. It would have been accurate, but a bad idea politically.

But what about something that flatters the electorate rather than himself? How about "I underestimated the capacity of Americans..." or, if he were looking for a total dodge, "I failed to really savor the special moments that come with this job, like the chance to talk to our returning heroes..."

Rose was hardly expecting searing soul-searching with that question in the middle of a bumpy re-election run by an incumbent president. Obama would have had broad latitude to go with a cotton-candy response. Ask a puffy question, get a puffy answer.

The second problem with Obama's response was that he was speaking of his new focus on "unity and purpose and optimism" on the very day that his campaign was breaking new thresholds of negativity and personal attacks against soon-to-be Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Almost as Obama was talking, his campaign was telling reporters that Romney was either a felon or a liar because the former CEO of Bain Capital maintained his ownership stake in the company after he left the management of the firm.

If Obama wants a uniting, purposeful and optimistic message for the nation, why then has his campaign been mostly about destroying the reputation of his adversary with a series of character attacks?

The binary choice of Romney either being a felon or a liar was an effort to prove right an oft-repeated but substantially debunked Obama claim that Romney shipped American jobs overseas in his effort to turn around failing companies.  

The deals that Obama says prove Romney to be an outsourcing "vampire" happened after Romney left the firm to salvage the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Romney and the folks at Bain says his name stayed on the paperwork at Bain while his control was unwound but that he was out of the decision-making process.

Much of the political week has been given over to such minutiae. Romney and the Republicans have countered with charges that Obama outsourced jobs by directing stimulus funds to firms that opened operations overseas. These claims were deemed slightly less tendentious, but still pooh-poohed by the new high priests of journalism, the fact checkers.

Romney has also opened up an umbrage campaign, trying to use the overheated Obama attacks to return fire on character attacks.

It's small, petty, personal and divisive stuff. It's unlikely many voters are listening to such flummery, especially at this time of year. But this is a foretaste of what they will see when they tune in six weeks hence: a grinding, negative campaign litigated in the press over small points.

And it now seems guaranteed that Obama will have run the most negative re-election campaign in modern politics. "Unity and purpose and optimism?" Not so much.

Obama speaks in the same terms as he did when he ran as a largely unknown figure promising to bind up the nation's partisan wounds with a new kind of politics. But his campaign seems to do nothing but attack, attack, attack.

Such incongruity is jarring to voters and may help explain why Obama's favorability ratings have slipped. The president once could boast that he was more popular than his policies. No longer. The napalm strategy against Romney must have something to do with that.

The president is on the campaign trail in Virginia today ostensibly selling a policy provision: His call for increased tax rates for top earners and a one-year extension of current tax rates for middle-income earners.

But that's not really a policy provision. It won't pass and is so narrow in scope. It's an extension of his effort to cast Romney as a plunderer of the middle class and to reinforce his campaign's constant suggestion that quarter billionaire Romney is a tax cheat. Certainly there is nothing about "unity purpose or optimism" in it.

As Obama runs a scorched-earth campaign against his opponent, he would do well to not indulge himself in the kind of self-flattery he did with Rose. It only serves to highlight how far the image of Obama of 2012 is from the public's perception of him in 2008.

And Now, A Word From Charles

"I think the charges up to now that he's a guy who doesn't care -- he outsources -- was effective. But when you get the Obama campaign accusing him of being a felon, you've jumped the shark. You can say a lot of stuff about Mitt Romney. Unfeeling, out of touch, stiff, but a felon he's not. I mean, he's a guy who not only doesn't have a skeleton in his closet, he doesn't have a closet. He's as clean as they come."

-- 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. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at  http:live.foxnews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.