Belmont Club

Exceeding Your Grasp

Impotent abroad, facing unexpected economic declines for the second month running, unable to raise money from former donors, ratings collapsing on the prediction markets, and with senior staff members reportedly shoving each other in the White House, what has happened to Hope and Change?  Forbes recently noted with amazement that President Obama has been receiving severe criticism from Move On for his inability to close Guantanamo prison and Wall Street.  If a debacle is in the making Michael Barone suggests that its roots may lay in a fundamental misreading of the situation by the President’s political staff.

“Axelrod is endeavoring not to panic.” So reads a sentence in John Heilemann’s exhaustive article on Barack Obama’s campaign in this week’s New York magazine …

The picture Heilemann draws is of campaign managers whose assumptions have been proved wrong and who seem to be fooling themselves about what will work in the campaign.

One assumption that has been proved wrong is that the Obama campaign would raise $1 billion and that, as in 2008, far more money would be spent for Democrats than Republicans. Heilemann reports the campaign managers’ alibis. Obama has given donors “shabby treatment,” he writes. This of a president who has attended more fundraisers than his four predecessors combined. …

A second assumption is that the Obama managers “see Romney as a walking, talking bull’s-eye” and have “contempt for his skills as a political performer.”

Those assumptions held that a campaign which emphasized the differences, thereby “rallying currently unenthusiastic core Obama voters —- Latinos, young voters, unmarried women” would deliver the White House a second time. But if those assumptions proved false, Barone concluded, it “could be a problem for them”.

So far it is not working. Peggy Noonan says, “the president’s campaign is making him look small and scared.”  So they’ve doubled down. Leo Gerard at the Huffington Post writes “Mitt Romney Enjoys Your Pain” in the hope that that enough mud is thrown some voters may pushed over the line by the avalanche of slurry.

But some observers think Axelrod has crafted a losing game plan. Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post asks, “why hasn’t he fired David Axelrod?”

A longtime Republican operative described Axelrod’s performance as akin to the performance of “Baghdad Bob” in the Iraq war. Seriously, he insists on putting himself front and center, rather than deferring to more endearing and skilled operatives. He winds up bolstering Mitt Romney’s message, getting shouted down or pummeled on TV.

Axelrod seems clueless about how to run anything but a “change” election, which is problematic, if not disastrous, for an incumbent president. The brass-knuckles campaign he has devised has made Romney a more effective and attractive candidate, while turning the president into an angry and petty figure. Not since Mark Penn helped drive Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign into the ground has a famed campaign guru stumbled this badly.

One answer to Jennifer Rubin’s question is “because firing Axelrod won’t make any difference”.  President Obama’s choices in the political casino are now to await events and hope for a break from Fate, to stand pat on his cards and hope Romney draws a bum card before November or to double down.

Let’s say Obama keeps Axelrod. With the Eurozone in crisis, the Middle East a disaster waiting to happen and nothing but bad news expected on the domestic economic there is little prospect in that Fate will suddenly be generous and hand the President a sudden winning card.

Let’s say Obama fires Axelrod and doubles down. Well, when  you are down far enough you will try anything. The Euro project is failing so badly that George Soros has actually proposed moving toward a European political union to save the currency.  You have to be pretty desperate to advocate abolishing ancient nations to save a currency. But the EU project is now so far down he’s got nothing to lose by taking the shot.

Military history is replete with examples of the “last throw of the dice”. Napoleon’s Waterloo,  The Battle of the Bulge and the Final Kamikaze Defense of Okinawa are but a few examples.  None of these were likely to succeed, and they didn’t.  While it is true that in desperate straits, only a high-risk, high-return strategy can provide any chance of recovery the odds are that you’ll blow everything you have left and then some. The cardinal rule to doubling down is you should only try it when there’s a good chance that you can pull it off. Since there’s no reason to expect doubling down will prove effective, firing Axelrod may not work either.

That leaves standing pat. Suppose the President said nothing and tried to act Presidential.  This might have worked had he tried the tactic while he was still ahead.  But now, given his position behind in the polls, standing pat means he will have to hang quietly on and hope for the best.

Politics is an uncertain business. But if Obama loses in November the campaign post-mortem may well conclude that the “war on women, the Romney is Mormon me, that he worked at Bain” meme proved was a bridge too far.  The point of overextension. The hidden cost of going a bridge too far was when it didn’t work then the Obama campaign fell behind at the only time when it might have been feasible to stand pat. Now that he’s blown his reserves and can’t go forward, what shall he do?


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