Political Animal


June 03, 2012 11:45 AM The Campaign Realism Problem

By Matthew Zeitlin

During campaigns, candidates like to talk about all the things they want to do see happen under their watch. While governing, the realm of legislative possibility is severely restricted by the makeup of the actual House and Senate that the president needs to deal with in order to actually sign any legislation that can at least partially match up with what was promised in the campaign. And so, we get the spectacle of 18 months of talking about a specific legislative agenda followed by executive-legislative wrangling and then finally some compromise that reaches the president’s desk (see: stimulus and health care reform).

But this time around, Obama may have plenty of ideas he would like to see turned into law during his second term, but the main focus of his campaign has been twofold: recognizing and protecting the achievements of the firm term and relentless attacks on Romney’s legislative agenda and record. Many conservatives are focusing on the second part of the president’s message and saying that it overwhelms any positive plan he is putting forth, and that this will doom his to defeat. Jay Cost is the latest to make this argument:

There is no vision from Team Obama about how to fix this mess, beyond these warmed-over proposals that made up the core of the (broadly unpopular) stimulus bill. What happens in a second term with the economy? Do we just keep limping on, while the president continually blames his predecessor, pushes small ball (and obviously poll-tested) proposals, and tries to pump more money into Democratic constituencies like the teachers and craft unions? I understand the political need to blame Bush, but there has to be more.

Even putting aside other things that Obama has talked about wanting to get done in his second term (immigration reform, tax reform, etc), one can see what Cost is getting at in his description of what Obama is centering his campaign around.

On the other hand, perhaps small-ball, poll tested initiatives and unending partistan warfare over Obama’s record is exactly what we can expect with four more years of Obama, no matter what he talks about during his reelection bid.

After all, the chances of Obama getting a workable legislative majority to go along with four more years in office are fairly slim, meaning that even if he had transformative ideas that Cost would not dismiss as attempts to “pump more money into Democratic constituencies,” they would likely never come to fruition or even come under serious debate.

So, for whatever reason, Obama is being pretty realistic about what to expect. And there is nothing wrong with a mostly negative reelection effort, despite what many conservatives seem to imply: if Obama can convince the country that they would be worse off under Romney, more power to him. But it does not exactly make for the most inspiring — or compelling — campaign season.


  • Kevin Ray on June 03, 2012 12:15 PM:

    It's worked before. Just ask Bill Clinton.

  • Neil B. on June 03, 2012 12:22 PM:

    Sure. As for the military accomplishments ("recognizing and protecting the achievements of the firm term"), the following letters from service personnel help quash the misleading memes that Obama took all the credit for killing OBL, that he wasn't really the primary decider of that route, and so on.
    Getting Bin Laden

  • jjm on June 03, 2012 12:48 PM:

    The GOP has nothing to run on. Their totally phony chant of "Jobs, jobs, jobs" is particularly infuriating, since it is THEIR shrinking of government that is accounting for all of the job losses currently being incurred. They are so smug, thinking that they are basically having their cake and eating it too. They cause the job losses directly by shrinking governments at the state level, then they get to blame Obama for not having more jobs created (even though he's done rather more than Bush did -- an understatement by the millions in creating jobs.)

    Their corporate friends slash jobs by the ton (e.g. Meg Whitman dismissing 27,000 workers on a whim) and they get their brownshirts to drown out Axelrod by screaming "where are the jobs?" over his speech.

    I can only hope that the voters do not return the GOP/TP to Congress in their customary numbers.

  • c u n d gulag on June 03, 2012 12:54 PM:

    The President needs to be touting what he did in his first 2 years when he had Democratic majorities in Congress, before the Teahadist's took over the House, and started their misogynistic, Nihilistic, and far-right Revolutionary agenda's.
    And that Mitt will be an enabler, if not an open cheerleader, for those agenda's.

    That, and his military record.

    And he needs to run against this current worse than "Do Nothing" Congress - and make the point, and keep hammering at it, that it's a "Do HARM" Congress.

    The only goal of the Conservatives, was not to help this country out of the mess they created, but to keep Obama and the Democrats from helping this country out of the mess they created, so he would lose in 2012.

    Party Over Country!

  • golack on June 03, 2012 1:23 PM:

    It would help if Obama did his "morning in America" pitch.

    The "stimulus" might be a toxic word, but people really loved what it did. Same with health care reform. Sell it!

  • PTate in MN on June 03, 2012 1:48 PM:

    When I read the headline for this post, I thought you were going to discuss how the GOP campaign will totally lack realism. They will obfuscate the real consequences of their policies while promoting all kinds of lies and distortions about Obama's policies.

    But, no, you want to talk about how dull Obama's campaign is going to be--focusing on a legislative agenda with zero chance of happening (given Republican sabotage) and on how bad Mitt Romney's record is.

    What is unfortunate to me is that everybody--the media, the Democrats, the President, citizens--has to act as if 2012 is a political campaign between two legitimate political parties instead of a cynical and destructive takeover of the US government by a handful of billionaires and their paid operatives against the interests of the 99%. It is a dull campaign because, instead of being able to talk about the real threat to American institutions of self-government, Obama has to operate within the constraints of a fiction.

  • jjm on June 03, 2012 2:17 PM:

    Agree with PTate in MN 100%

  • Skip on June 03, 2012 2:52 PM:

    Obama certainly isn't perfect, as Cost sings to his choir. In this laser focused criticism of Obama, does it strike anyone as unnerving how the conservatives seem very unconcerned about Romney, what he lies about, his lack of defined policy, or even his non-Christian religion in today's current phobic atmosphere? All that the right seem to want of Mitt Romney is to replace Barack Obama, after that, there is a curious lack of a defined path to anywhere. It appears the God Party will vote for aimless wandering out of the desert.

    Obama isn't perfect, and we have many voices raising that point. Okay, conceded. But if Mitt Romney has given out any signals of hope or confidence that he can provide a better way upward and forward for the US, I have not heard nor read it. I've seen nothing from Team Mitt to substanciate the need for an exchange of leadership in the White House. While the economy is limping under Obama, is it not limping upward? Romney is an unknown risk with a lot of baggage and a seemingly endless fountain of lies. The evidence is firmly in front of our faces that this man has no qualms at all about lying to the American people. Moreover, Mitt has proven he has no empathy for those who live and suffer beyond the affluent walls of his personal circle. This on its own should persuade rational voters, those whose vision goes beyond the ridiculous Anyone But Obama philosophy, as reason enough to disqualify the man to lead a diverse and hurting nation.

    Obama is not perfect, but he does have empathy for those he leads and he operates from that premise. That and with the economy moving upward under his leadership, albeit slowly, is that not enough to allow him one more term?

  • square1 on June 03, 2012 3:52 PM:

    Sorry, but Obama utterly lacks "the vision thing."

    It is easy to make an argument that the Republican agenda is far worse than the Obama agenda. It is easy to argue that, if left to their own devices, the Republicans wound have ground the world's economy to a halt.

    But what is difficult to argue is that Obama's agenda amounts to much more than checking off a checklist of agenda items by sticking his finger in the air to detect the conventional beltway wisdom as defined by Broder, Friedman, and Brooks, and then splitting the baby to resolve all disputes as fast as possible.

    Obama's re-election prospects are closely tied to the economy: if it continues to sputter along making tiny but incremental improvements then Obama should prevail. But if the economy locks up again, most likely triggered by another bank failure, then Obama will likely lose.

    My problem is that I can't think of anything that Obama would have done differently, even if he had 100 Democrats in the Senate, that would have significantly altered the present economic outlook.

  • Cha on June 03, 2012 6:45 PM:

    Where the heck is Steve Benen when you need him? He certainly would not be pushing this shite on Political Animal about the Obama Campaign. No, he's over at the Maddow blog chronicling the LIES of one Willard Romney. The Obama Campaign is right to hold Mendacious Mitt Accountable.

    I clicked this on because I wanted to see just who you were talking about..I had it feeling it might not be the problem the gops have with REALISM.

    And, square1, you aren't even aware enough to know what a visionary President Obama is. All you do is ignorantly whine, incessantly.

  • Anonymous on June 03, 2012 9:15 PM:

    Here's some reality - a Romney win would deliver the Supreme Court to the teabagger/corporatists for the next 20+ years. That prospect alone should have every Leftie fired up and ready to go.

  • Redshift on June 03, 2012 11:10 PM:

    It takes a lot of gall to talk about stimulus programs that we desperately need as "warmed-over" when you're a member of a party who constantly pushes their *thirty-year-old* nostrum of tax cuts as the answer to every problem, despite the fact that it has *never* worked.

    The stimulus, like health care reform, is only "broadly unpopular" because Republican partisans have lied about them nonstop.

    I don't understand the point of producing posts thoughtfully considering the arguments of people who are putting forth pure partisan claptrap with no basis in fact.