"I've been told I'm just eye candy here."
-- President Obama in an appearance on “The View,” a women’s daytime chat show. The interview, which was taped Monday and includes first lady Michelle Obama, is set to air today.
The rap on Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is that he’s been unwilling to take chances even though he’s trailing President Obama: playing a prevent defense even though he’s trailing in the big game.
Republicans and conservatives are constantly exhorting Romney to go bold and talk about big ideas. Of course, they’re also telling him to focus on their own pet issues: Israel, brain science, the value of the dollar, etc.
But the constant cry, picked up daily by an establishment press long in search of stories about an unhappy Republican base, is that Romney isn’t “going big.” This serves the most important press narrative for the election: that Romney is a sure loser, Bob Dole with better hair.
This debate over bigness is particularly crucial now because voter attitudes about the state of the economy and the president’s handling of it have started to marginally improve. Voters may have come to accept the president’s argument that things aren’t very good, but they could certainly be worse.
If Romney can’t do what Republicans did successfully in 2010 and make the election about the size, reach and expense of the federal government in the age of Obama, he will be left to fight Obama on the narrow measurement of “job creation.”
Even though Republicans believe that federal deficit spending to spur job growth is actually counterproductive to a healthy employment market, the president can make a convincing argument to moderate voters: Romney wants to cut programs intended to help workers while Obama wants to enhance them.
The debate between Keynesians and the disciples of Milton Friedman may make for a crackling panel discussion at the Brookings Institution or the American Enterprise Institute, but the shorthand for voters in the Ohio suburbs is that both men have a plan to “create jobs.”
In 2010, Republicans won with a narrow message that Obama was sending the country into fiscal and bureaucratic oblivion. His two major achievements, his 2009 stimulus package and 2010 health law, were exhibits A and B in the Republican war on spending and big government.
Romney shows himself increasingly willing to walk into these waters, starting with his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate and is often at his best on the stump when he discusses debt, deficit and spending.
But as the right and the political press have endlessly gnawed at the ankles of the Republican nominee for insufficient boldness, little has been said about the president’s decision to sit on the ball, until now.
After his party’s 2010 drubbing, Obama switched fully into re-election mode, and opted to make Republicans in Congress foils for the frustrated hopes of anxious voters. Obama’s re-election campaign, which began in earnest nearly 13 months ago, has been divided mostly into two parts: waging war on Congress and assassinating Romney’s character.
Given the uproar in the electorate over Obama’s very busy first two years, political prudence demanded that the president cool his jets and stop startling voters. He may not have been willing to move to the middle, as Bill Clinton did in advance of the 1996 election, but Obama at least needed to cool the popular sentiment that he was doing too much, too fast and without the support of the electorate.
But as a result, there has been no bigness in Obamaland. The difference, though, is that as an incumbent who enjoyed a massive cash advantage in the first 10 months of his campaign, Obama could be excused for sitting on the ball.
If you like the trajectory of a campaign, your goal as a candidate is to do what you can to preserve it. Team Obama has long believed that the contour of the race favored the president and have tried to force Romney to take the risks. Team Romney, meanwhile, thought that the former Massachusetts governor could allow Obama to sink in the electoral quicksand of a weak economy.
It turns out, though, they were both wrong.
As the Muslim world has been ablaze with anti-American violence, including a terrorist strike that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and attacks by alleged allies in Afghanistan, candidate Obama and his administration sought to downplay the deadly attacks as a “bump in the road.”
This week, rather than face the political dangers of meeting with his longtime jousting partner Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama has opted to become the first U.S. president in two decades to not hold any meetings with world leaders during the United Nations annual General Assembly meeting. Afraid of further irritating Jewish voters and donors by shunning Netanyahu but meeting with another leader, Obama decided to duck.
Recall when John McCain in 2008 said he was suspending his campaign to address the ongoing financial panic that was gripping the nation but still found time for an interview with Katie Couric, who was then anchoring the CBS Evening News. There’s more than a little of that in Obama’s decision to canoodle with the ladies of “The View” rather than meet with world leaders.
Democrats are so certain now that Romney is doomed that their hope is for the president to do or say nothing to change the climate of the race. But in his desire to look busy but take no action that might offend anxious voters, the president has drifted into an appearance of inaction at a time of international crisis.
Obama and Romney are like pilots circling the same airfield, hoping to time their landing at just the right moment, or for the other to run out of fuel. Voters, like the passengers aboard the planes, have grown frustrated with the lack of direction.
The president’s inaction itself is changing the dynamic of the race. Unfortunately for the president, that’s happening at a moment when Romney seems to be coming to understand that he can’t win by default.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“His objective between now and November is that nothing happens in the world, as if he can stop it, ignore the Middle East, ignore the Iranian problem, ignore the debt ceiling and the cliff. Ignore everything so that you can get over the finish line and then expect the world to respond to us.”
-- 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.