Washington journalists usually blame Mr. Obama’s failures to work with Congress on the GOP—its tea-party nuttiness, its “nihilism.” But the president’s own focus groups, which didn’t contain Obama haters on the assumption they were unreachable, put the onus on him: It’s your job, make it work, get it done.
The Obama campaign decided not to make the campaign about the state of the economy, but about who could look after the interests of the middle class in a time of historic transition. At the same time they decided to go after Mitt Romney hard, and remove him as a reasonable alternative. His selling point was that he understood the economy and made it work for him: He was rich. They turned that into a tale of downsizing, layoffs and rapacious capitalism. An Obama adviser: “He may get the economy, he may know how to make money . . . but every time he did, folks like you lost your pensions, lost your jobs.”
Somehow the Romney campaign never saw it coming.
Noonan left out what I think sealed the deal with the middle class, and that was Bill Clinton’s deft keynote address at the Democratic convention. Clinton did two things, one explicit and the other implicit.
The explicit thing was when he flatly stated, “I couldn’t have fixed this economy in four years.” This was the best line in the whole speech, even though I don’t believe it for one second. Clinton’s recipe — penny pinching on domestic spending, do-nothingism legislation after the failure of ClintonCare, and a business-friendly attitude — would have worked just as well in in Obama’s first term as it did in Clinton’s. But today’s middle class was the up-and-coming youth of the ’90s, and we remember those years fondly. Peace and prosperity will do that, you know. So to hear Clinton, the supposed architect of those good times, say he couldn’t have done any better than Obama… well, that went a long way toward relieving the sitting President of the appearance of incompetence.
And that went a long way toward accomplishing the second thing Clinton did in his speech, which was to give voters permission to vote for Obama again by giving them forgiveness for having done it the first time around. The joke went, “You voted for Obama in 2008 to prove you weren’t a racist. Who will you vote for in 2012 to prove you aren’t an idiot?” But Clinton implied that you wouldn’t be an idiot after all.
Romney only had one effective counter to that kind of endorsement, which he put on full display during the first of the three debates. However, there was precious little follow through on that one standout performance. Contrast that with Obama’s culture war to get out the youth vote, race-baiting to stir up minority voters, and micro-targeting metrics to comfort middle class voters.
Obama’s campaign was the nastiest in modern American history, but it worked. And that should teach you as much about the condition of the American electorate as it does about
viciousness of the Chicago machine.