It's clear enough by now that this election will be a nail-bitingly close one; and that any early triumphalism among the Obamaites is preposterous. Of course he can lose. In that context, John Heilemann's deeply-reported piece on Obama re-election efforts is worth reading in full. Big picture:
[The 2012 campaign] will bear about as much resemblance to 2008 as Romney does to Nicki Minaj. In the campaign prior, any mention of Wright caused a collective coronary in Chicago; this time, it provokes high-fives. In the campaign prior, Team Obama boldly bid to expand the map; this time, it is playing defense. In the campaign prior, the candidate himself sought support from the widest possible universe of voters; this time, instead of trying to broaden his coalition, he is laboring to deepen it. Indeed, 2012 is shaping up to be an election that looks more like 2004 than 2008: a race propelled by the mobilization of party fundamentalists rather than the courtship of the center.
The question to me becomes: does the electoral strategy shift the positive message and the unifying brand? I can see the governing logic: if Obama gets a solid re-election, he is in a much stronger position to negotiate a grand bargain on debt, taxes and spending with the GOP on Bowles-Simpson lines. A clear victory for him would sober up the GOP. It would recapitalize the president to negotiate our way out of debt and sluggish growth. But if that's the case, it seems to me that that should be the message.
Here's how I'd summarize the argument I think works best for Obama:
"I inherited a financial and economic disaster and two wars that did not end in victory. I have prevented a second Great Depression, restored job growth, saved our auto industry, restored financial stability, ended one war and wound down another, but we need more. We need investments in infrastructure, reform of immigration, and continuation of my education reforms. And we need a sensible approach to debt elimination. My policy is to cut entitlements, cut defense and slash tax loopholes and deductions so we can get higher revenues from those who have done extremely well these past three decades. My opponent refuses to tax the extremely wealthy at the same rates as ordinary folk, and wants to cut the debt solely by cutting entitlements for the old and sick, while increasing defense spending and cutting taxes even further. We all know we are going to have to retrench. Would you rather do it with me guarding the core of the welfare state or with Romney-Ryan who want to end it with a solution that Newt Gingrich called 'right wing social engineering'"?
I think you have to have this positive contrast to balance the brutal attacks on Romney in advertizing, or risk losing that critical ingredient that made Obama Obama: a sane reminder of the actual policy choices we face, and a reasoned centrist approach to solving them. Alas, after the heat of a brutal partisan pushback from the GOP from Day One, that positive vision is not so present this time around. It needs to be brought back.
On the back of an envelope, I'd jot three key arguments a la Carville:
Would you rather cut the debt by slashing entitlements alone – or do you favor a balanced approach, with increased taxes on the wealthy, retrenchment of defense and reform of entitlements?
Would you rather a president who wants to launch a war against Iran or a president who will do all he can to avoid it?
Do you want repeal of a healthcare law that guarantees available private insurance even to those with pre-existing conditions? If you are under 26, and on your parents' health insurance, do you want to lose it?
If those questions dominate the campaign, Obama will win. Waiting for better economic numbers and pummeling Romney's favorables is not, in my view, a superior strategy.
(Supporters listen to US President Barack Obama speaking during a campaign event at the Paul R. Knapp Animal Learning Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on May 24, 2012. By Jewel Samad/AFP/GettyImages.)