Monday morning, President Obama unveiled his 2012 campaign slogan, ”Forward”, in a new eight minute web advertisement selectively highlighting his record as POTUS while contrasting Mitt Romney and Republicans as the party of “No.” This eight minute ad is significant not only because it officially kicks off Obama’s general election campaign, but because it clearly illuminates his strategic direction to victory this November. Let’s take a few moments to dissect the messaging behind this ad and the foreshadowing it lays for the rest of the campaign.
The main takeaway from the Obama ad is simple: It could have been worse. Give Obama more time to turn the ship around – and, oh yeah, look at all he has accomplished in the meantime. That is on the positive ledger. On the negative ledger, they are throwing the kitchen sink at Romney. I spotted at least a dozen similarly-themed attack ads directly from the Obama campaign attempting to portray Mitt Romney as extreme, out of touch, lacking the guts and strength to lead under pressure. Why are they being so aggressive against Romney before the Primary has officially ended? Simple. Obama and his campaign consultants are scared. They are scared of gas prices. They are scared of a truly moderate Republican with extensive private sector experience. They are scared that Romney is a “do no harm” kind of candidate. Finally, they are scared that this election is going to be a referendum on Obama and his record.
Obama ran a campaign in 2008 that set stratospheric expectations of a post partisan world in which everyone worked together, small businesses thrived and war was a word of the past. He set expectations so high that no mere mortal could possibly meet them. In essence, he set himself up to fail in 2012.
President Obama’s campaign playbook is scarce on pages as they are just about out of options. Here are several avenues the Obama campaign has to choose from:
Run on Obama’s record – This is unlikely given his approval ratings on almost everything, but his personality, is a net negative. He will lose big with this approach alone.
Brainwash the media into parroting Obama’s message of: “It could have gone worse. It really is Bush’s fault.” This approach will help shape the campaign narrative, but may not be enough to overcome dinner table issues every American must face on a daily basis: jobs, the economy, gas prices.
The filthy kitchensink approach – Go negative and define Romney early. Attack Romney on every front and be unrelenting. Create an army of social media warriors (both paid and organic) to out yell Romney and portray him as unqualified and extreme: George W. Bush 2.0. Hopefully, the high level of negativity will suppress Republican turnout while preserving Obama’s base as someone who has tried to uplift the country, not tear it down with partisan bickering.
There is only one problem with all of the President’s plays: Mitt Romney is not extreme. In fact, he is rather milquetoast. The other problem is that most Americans do not feel they are better off now than they were four years ago. Voters are not likely to buy this brand of snakeoil.
To Obama’s credit, he has rebranded his army of viral video makers and social media tweeters. No longer are they the spin squad, they are the Truth Team. His Truthers, not to be confused with the conspiracists, will attempt to put their brand of the truth on all campaign issues. It is a worthwhile effort, but will require a Herculean effort given the sheer number of users not on Obama’s payroll who will weigh in with their two cents throughout the campaign.
If Barack Obama is able to re-define Mitt Romney early as an extreme out of touch billionaire who is looking to outsource and downsize America while at the same time repainting a picture of the last four years as a rebound instead of a recession, he may have a chance.
At this point in the election cycle, I give Mitt Romney an advantage over Barack Obama in November. Obama’s campaign task is to execute a nearly flawless campaign, shape an electorate’s opinion that is naturally inclined to try someone new and define an opponent whose reputation is nearly unimpeachable.
Whether we like it or not, America is moving “Forward.” The question remains whether or not we will be embarking in the next part of our nation’s history with or without Barack Obama as POTUS.
John S. Thomas earned a BA from Southern Methodist University and received his MPP from Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy. He is the founder and CEO of Thomas Partners Strategies, a political consulting and strategy firm based in Los Angeles.