Obama’s 2012 Re-Election Strategy: The Politics Of Personal Destruction?

The Obama re-election campaign is preparing an extraordinarily negative campaign against Mitt Romney.

Perhaps in recognition of the fact that the economy is unlikely to improve very much between now and November 2012, Politico reports that the Obama campaign is preparing an extraordinarily negative campaign against the person they think is the likely Republican nominee:

Barack Obama’s aides and advisers are preparing to center the president’s re-election campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background, a strategy grounded in the early stage expectation that the former Massachusetts governor is the likely GOP nominee.

The dramatic and unabashedly negative turn is the product of political reality. Obama remains personally popular, but pluralities in recent polling disapprove of his handling of his job and Americans fear the country is on the wrong track. His aides are increasingly resigned to running for re-election in a glum nation. And so the candidate who ran on “hope” in 2008 has little choice four years later but to run a slashing, personal campaign aimed at disqualifying his likeliest opponent.

In a move that will make some Democrats shudder, Obama’s high command has even studied President Bush’s 2004 takedown of Sen. John F. Kerry, a senior campaign adviser told POLITICO, for clues on how a president with middling approval ratings can defeat a challenger.

“Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney,” said a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House.

The onslaught would have two aspects. The first is personal: Obama’s re-elect will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird.”

“First they’ve got to like you, and there’s not a lot to like about Mitt Romney,” said Chicago Democratic consultant Pete Giangreco, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. “There’s no way to hide this guy and hide his innate phoniness.”

A senior Obama adviser was even more cutting, suggesting that the Republican’s personal awkwardness will turn off voters.

“There’s a weirdness factor with Romney and it remains to be seen how he wears with the public,” said the adviser, noting that the contrasts they’d drive between the president and the former Massachusetts governor would be “based on character to a great extent.”

The character attacks on Romney will focus on what critics view as a make-over, both personal (skinny jeans) and political (abortion).

(…)

Democrats also plan to amplify what Obama strategists described as the “weirdness” quotient, the sum of awkward public encounters and famous off-kilter anecdotes, first among them the tale of Romney’s once having strapped his dog to the roof of his car.

Indeed, Obama officials have made “weirdness” an epithet for Romney the way they tagged John McCain “erratic” in the fall of 2008, after the Arizona senator suddenly left the campaign trail and nearly backed out of the first debate as part of an attempt to get a deal on the bailout.

“Presidential campaigns are like MRIs of the soul,” said Axelrod. “When he makes jokes about being unemployed, or a waitress pinching him on the butt, it does snap your head back and you say, ‘what’s he talking about?'”

“It’s not just a matter of dodging the debate, not just a matter of flip flopping and putting his finger to the wind – it is that he’s not comfortable in his own skin and that gives people a sense of unease,” added a Democratic consultant expected to be involved in the re-elect.

Jonathan Chait comments:

I’m no political strategist, and I have no idea if this will work. It did work for George W. Bush in 2004. But I can authoritatively say it’s total crap. Skinny jeans, dog on the roof, uncomfortable in his skin, butt-pinching jokes… do these things tell you anything meaningful about how he would govern?

Yea, it did work for George W. Bush in 2004, and the dirty little secret of American politics is that negative campaigning works, and that’s the reasons campaigns utilize it. The big flaw I see in this strategy, though, is that, unlike Bush in 2004, or Bush Sr in 1988, Obama is likely to be campaigning for re-election in an era of high unemployment, a weak economy, and an uncertain international situation. The idea that his campaign is going to be able to distract voter attention from the problems they see around them by pointing at Romney and saying “Hey, look at the silly jeans that guys is wearing!” is just silly.

Barack Obama is running for re-election and he’s going to have to defend his record and give voters a reason to give him another four years in office. Asking the voters to ignore the fact that your Presidency has, to a large degree, been a disappointment if not a complete failure, is asking the impossible and doesn’t strike me as much of a strategy for victory.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Romney won’t be the nominee at all. But that’s a subject for another post.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. sam says:

    “The first is personal: Obama’s re-elect will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird.”

    I’d argue with the weird thing, but inauthentic and unprincipled seem pretty on the money. I mean, the guy ain’t called Multiple-Choice Mitt for nothin’.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Weird jeans is one layer removed from weird underwear. This could backfire.

  3. mantis says:

    Does Politico ever talk to anyone with a name?

  4. Moosebreath says:

    This strikes me as worthy of the Onion, not a serious campaign. I can see lots of reasons to attack Mitt, but this is the equivalent of complaining about Al Gore’s makeover into earth tones.

  5. Herb says:

    Seriously? If Obama launches “a ferocious personal assault” against Romney it will probably be the first time he launched “a ferocious personal assault” on anyone. That’s not his style.

  6. Hey Norm says:

    My reading of the Politico article was not so extreme. Yes the weird stuff was in there but also flip-flopping and business and political office histories. Both your excerpting and Chaits read like parodies of campaigns and do not fit the image of Obama.
    At any rate I’m willing to bet that Perry/Palin is the ticket Obama will be facing.

  7. alkali says:

    I am guessing that this is an attempt to manufacture a “Romney is weird” meme among the chattering classes. It might work. (The “Al Gore is a compulsive liar” meme wasn’t fair, but it worked.)

  8. mantis says:

    Weird jeans is one layer removed from weird underwear.

    I was thinking more along the lines of this. If you think the Obama campaign is going to go down the road of openly criticizing Romney’s religion or religious practices, you are quite misguided.

    The skinny jeans were presented by the Romney camp as an example of his non-squareness. To wit:

    Defying his reputation as a 1950s square, the new, more casual Mitt Romney is popping up around the country as he readies a second run for president. He’s going tieless on network TV, strolling NASCAR pits in Daytona and sporting skinny Gap jeans bought for him by his wife.

    No tie! NASCAR! Skinny jeans! He’s hip! He’s authentic! It’s kind of like Kerry’s hunting trip to prove he wasn’t a Washington stiff who hates guns and hunters and America and freedom. It had a fair amount of desperation and disingenuousness to it, and was thus a good opportunity for the opposition. Same goes for Skinny Jeans Romney.

  9. mantis says:

    At any rate I’m willing to bet that Perry/Palin is the ticket Obama will be facing.

    If you think that Queen Sarah will play second fiddle to anyone ever again, you’re dreaming.

  10. WR says:

    You mean to say that the Islamic Fascist Muslim Communist Alinkyite who pals around with terrorists and wants to destroy America is going to introduce negativity into American politcs? For shame!

  11. rodney dill says:

    Seriously? If Obama launches “a ferocious personal assault” against Romney it will probably be the first time he launched “a ferocious personal assault” on anyone. That’s not his style.

    He lets others do the attacks for him. That is his style.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Herb: I’m guessing that, if it happens, it’ll be lackeys and surrogates making the attacks, not POTUS.

  13. rodney dill says:

    @James Joyner: GMTA
    Actually, its a good strategy politically. Clinton had James Carville to be his pit bull on a leash. I always thought it was a weakness in Palin’s approach that she didn’t have someone to do this for her. It’s hard to look presidential if you have to do your own attacks against others.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    I think weird means Mormon. I can just imagine the bull sessions with various stripes of wordsmiths searching for the word that would “signal” but wouldn’t get them caught.

  15. Hari says:

    In addition to the negative attacks on Kerry, Bush argued in 2004 that you don’t switch horses midstream (talking about the war on terror). If Obama can point to improvements in the economy by next summer, he can make the same argument, even if people are unhappy.

  16. PJ says:

    Romney is going to have to win the republican primary first, where he will be attacked by the other candidates. There will be attacks centering on the abortion providing RomneyCare, his flip/flopping, and also anonymous attacks on his religion.
    Do anyone think that the rest of the field will just lie down and let Romney walk over them? (Except for Pawlently.)

    There’s no need for democrats to attack him now, Romney may not even be the nominee in the end.

  17. mattb says:

    Romney is going to have to win the republican primary first, where he will be attacked by the other candidates.

    I don’t think that this can be said enough. Barring a major change and assuming that all the signals are correct, this is a battle between Romney and Perry. And I’m unconvinced that Romney has what it takes to defeat a “fire-in-the-gut” and “guy-I’d-have-a-beer-with” social con.

    And if he does, then Obama’s side may not have to worry about the politics of personal destruction because the Republican primary will have laid most of the groundwork.

  18. Eric Florack says:

    Of course he’s going to attack, go negative. Can you foresee Obama running on his record?

  19. James in LA says:

    Well, the attacks aren’t going to be much more than a small jab in the GOP chest to knock it over, probably for good. From CNN:

    Democratic Party: Favorable 47%, Unfavorable 47%
    Republican Party: Favorable 33%, Unfavorable 59%

    The last poll before this one was from July 20th when the numbers were

    Dem: Fav: 45%, Unfav 49%
    GOP: Fav: 41%, Unfav 55%

    After what will likely happen in WI tonight, these numbers are likely to start curing.

    I favor calling Congress back to work. That would some heat lamps.

  20. Dave Schuler says:

    You do what works. Personal destruction works.

    I’m surprised we haven’t seen a full court press on this, promoted by various surrogates of course, already. Every time a Republican candidate pokes his or her head up, there’s a major onslaught of press attacks.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    Can you foresee Obama running on his record?

    Indeed…when there are people like you who will distort his record, what choice does he have but to go negative…

    Every time a Republican candidate pokes his or her head up, there’s a major onslaught of press attacks.

    Well, considering the sterling quality of this particular GOP cast of characters…

  22. PD Shaw says:

    @mantis: “If you think the Obama campaign is going to go down the road of openly criticizing Romney’s religion or religious practices, you are quite misguided.”

    No, I don’t think he would. His campaign though is planning on throwing a pebble which might have unplanned riipple effects.

    Michael is more cynical on this than me.

  23. hey norm says:

    @ Mantis…
    Palin/Perry?
    While I do see your point…Palin is unwilling to do the hard work of running President. To date she doesn’t seem to have done any of the groundwork required to even get a presidential campaign started…Perry has.
    VP is easy…and you still get to bask in the limelight…which is all she’s really about anyway.

  24. mantis says:

    Palin is unwilling to do the hard work of running President.

    Yeah, and that’s why she will continue to pretend she is going to run (and may pretend to want a VP spot). It keeps her in the media and keeps the dollars flowing. That’s the important thing.

  25. sam says:

    DougJ over at John Cole’s place:

    The national media has a Holden Caulfield-like hatred of “phonies”. It sees Romney as a phony because Mitt is a moderate Republican pretending to be a lunatic, whereas most of the other Republican candidates are actual lunatics.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    His campaign though is planning on throwing a pebble which might have unplanned riipple effects.

    Oh? Like what?