"Having said all that, I am pretty competitive and I very much intend to win this election."
-- President Obama speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco.
An incumbent president who looks set to reach the $1 billion threshold in campaign fundraising and is renowned for his rhetorical gifts and political organization ought not need to remind his supporters four weeks before Election Day that he intends to win re-election.
But Democrats are freaking out because they are worried that President Obama might not have the will to win. Because they find his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney so repellant and Romney’s party so absurd, Obama’s supporters are ascribing the president’s debate defeat and resulting drop in the polls to some problem within their candidate himself.
Obama is going along with this notion, saying that his debate loss was a result of an off night and his placing honesty and substance ahead of political pandering. Obama’s message to his campaign benefactors in California this week has been that while he acknowledges a bad outing and takes the blame for letting a lesser man get the best of him but promises that he’ll be back in fighting form.
This is necessary because in an election in which Democrats have consistently struggled with voter enthusiasm, the idea that the man at the top of the ticket is listless would be deadly. Obama is asking his supporters to be “obsessive” about the election for the next 28 days, but if they think him not obsessed that’s a rather difficult request to make.
Democrats have pretty consistently overestimated Obama’s political gifts, a mistake he and his team are guilty of as well. A rational response to Obama’s October swoon might be to consider what’s wrong with the candidate’s pitch or policies, which is what Republicans did when Romney’s support started eroding a few weeks back.
But Democrats are going the other way, insisting that Obama should be winning, but is either freighted with some concern he can’t share or, most amazingly, doesn’t actually want to win a second term. A Chicago politician who had the fastest, most ambitious climb to the presidency of anyone ever is now touting his own credentials as a player of hardball? They guy who has been in full campaign mode for more than a year is reminding his supporters that he really wants to win?
This is a flattery firing squad. Liberals believe that Obama is in fact too cerebral, too thoughtful and too decent for the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics. It’s a view Obama shares and reinforces, frequently claiming that his biggest mistake as president was caring too much about good policy and not enough about cheap politics.
Had the president given 64 speeches in support of his 2010 health law instead of 54, people might have embraced the unpopular plan. Had Obama found the right story to tell about his stimulus packages, voters might have believed that it worked.
Republicans were certainly guilty of the same thing with George W. Bush in 2004, believing that if the president and his team could just explain the Iraq war in a better way, they could change public perception. Bush did rally support for staying the course, but presidential speeches and talking points can only go so far. An advantage Republicans had was the understanding of their candidate’s limitations. Democrats, and the Obama campaign, are suffering from an unrealistic view of the incumbent and his gifts.
As Bush might have said, better to be misunderstimated than misoverestimated.
The Obama we saw last week was not so different from the one we saw in 2008 against John McCain. More downcast, yes. More irritated, yes. But the same gusty professorial answers and sometimes halting delivery were certainly on display.
Not considered by Democrats is the severity of the challenge Obama is facing. Not only is he lugging a weak economy and a deteriorating international situation, but he is facing a much more dangerous foe than in 2008. McCain was an undisciplined campaigner who was gaited for a foreign-policy election in a race that suddenly became all about the economy, his weakest subject.
Romney, on the other hand, is diligent and disciplined and takes to his attacks with élan. The sight of Romney grinning while Obama spoke in the debate suggested a confident campaigner who was just waiting for the chance to knock Obama’s block off. When McCain was listening to Obama he was visibly uncomfortable. Romney looked like a guy spoiling for a fight.
The fairly static nature of the race for the previous six months had confirmed to Democrats what they wanted to believe: that Romney couldn’t win. Democrats believed that Romney might come close and that Obama would win by a smaller margin than 2008, but that the president was bound for re-election.
In truth, the race has functioned like many re-election campaigns. Voters did their best to ignore the event for as long as they could, but when finally faced with the grim reality of having to make a choice, the polls started fluctuating.
After the conventions, Obama shot up. Families home from vacation and starting school watched Obama, his wife and Bill Clinton make their case and thought, “what the heck.”
But then, twice as many people tuned into the debate and saw Romney at his best and thought, “this guy could be president.” Polls this week suggest that Romney’s big win and plausibly presidential performance have dramatically altered the race in favor of the challenger.
Democrats wanted to believe that Obama could grind out a win in a narrowly divided nation. In truth, Americans are so fed up with the political status quo and economic malaise that they are willing to go for a breakout play. The possibility of a substantial win for either candidate has always been in the cards.
Democrats and the president alike have been shaken up because they misunderstood their challenges, underestimated their opponents and failed to perceive the degree of volatility in the electorate.
Blaming the problem on an off night for Obama will not turn things back in their favor. What Team Obama needs is to stay serious about their longstanding strategy of relentlessly working to ruin Romney’s personal reputation. It’s not pleasant and it’s not as fun as believing that a speech or performance by a beloved president will change the race, but it’s all they’ve got.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“Obama is trying to throw money at negating the effect of the debate by calling Romney a liar, which is interesting after a string of other excuses, weak moderator, the stresses of office, and the demands, like appearing on "The View" and raising a lot of money in Hollywood, and, of course, altitude. So now it's that Romney is a liar and Obama was so shocked by the lies he couldn't speak on his own.”
-- 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.