Obama was a brilliant campaigner. He understood the basic rule of politics for how to get elected, yet as president and now in seeking reelection, he just does not seem to get it. What are these rules of politics? For our purposes, four rules are critical.
The first is that politics is like selling beer. By that, politics and political success are contingent upon developing a powerful narrative. Narratives are stories–they are stories that explain who you are as a candidate, what you hope to accomplish as president, what your view of the world is. Narratives are rhetorical and persuasive tools to convince voters to support you. Moreover, good narratives are positive and look to the future. Great example of past narratives are Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Clinton morphing Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow” into a campaign mantra, and even Obama’s 2008 “Change we can believe in.” All were inspirational.
But where is Obama’s narrative now? The problem is he has no narrative. In 2010, the Democrats went down to defeat because either they had no narrative or at best, their narrative was “It could have been worse.” The latter, in reference to claims that had Obama not acted with the stimulus and Dodd-Frank the economy could have been worse. Such a narrative was neither inspirational not compelling. It died in the face of the a brilliant Republican narrative stolen from Obama in 2008–change.
The narrative again in 2012 for the Republicans will be change. Obama still lacks a narrative. His speech on jobs last week was an effort to cast himself with a narrative that it is “the economy stupid” and that he cares more about it than the Republicans. So far, that new narrative is not working.
The second rule of politics is mobilize your base. It is imperative to nail down your political base if running for office. You need to get them behind you, excited, and mobilized. Politics begins with dueling bases. If your base stays home and the other shows up, you are in trouble. As Woody Allen correctly stated: “Ninety percent of life is showing up.”
Obama’s base is eroding. Recent NY Times polls show that the unions, white working class, the young, and the liberals in his party are discouraged, and disappointed with Obama. It is for good reason–he blew them off too many times. He continuously gives into the Republicans instead of fighting for what his base wants. Somehow Obama the law professor believes that everyone will be reasonable and willing to compromise. It takes two to tango and only one side is dancing. Moreover, Obama consistently blew off supporters–stating that they had to wait on don’t ask don’t tell, gay marriage, changing rule son unionization, or dealing with the environment. He has told his supporters he has bigger fish to fry and that they must wait. Bad moves. The best way to disappoint supporters is to raise their expectations and then dash them.
The third rule is that politics is a bar fight. Fights in bars are won or lost by the ability to capture the audience to your side. In politics, this means the battle is for the swings. Even if each side mobilizes its political base, that does not guarantee victory because neither the Democrats not Republicans represent 50% +1 of the voters. Neither party has majority status. The battle is thus to capture the swing voters and states. Among voters, the suburban moms and moderates are the swings.
Obama’s new strategy is to refine himself as the moderate centrist, seeking to show he is reasonable and the Republicans are not. Obama’s job speech, his efforts to compromise on the debt deal, and so much more recently have been efforts to do this. Yet the efforts to create this new narrative have failed. He has failed to capture the swings, but luckily for him, the same is true for the Republicans.
Obama has failed to capture the swings because of his inability to propose economic plans deep and broad enough to really stimulate the economy and produce jobs. He has failed to address the mortgage crisis that continues to depress real estate prices, sales, and personal wealth. And he has done nothing to reinvigorate consumer demand. His jobs proposal was anemic and failed because it did not offer solutions to these problems. As so aptly stated by several small business owners at a talk to the Twin Cities West Chamber of Commerce: “Tax cuts will not encourage me to hire anyone. So long as no one wants to buy my products I have no reason to hire anyone and tax cuts are not going to change that.”
Finally, Obama has forgotten a fourth rule of politics–Rod Stewart is right--It’s about passion (in reference to a song he wrote many years ago). Passionate people are motivated and will vote and give money vote. They will show up. Obama seems to assume a dispirited base has nowhere to go but back to him. He banks on this and tries to appeal to swings (and a miserable Republican candidate) to pave his way to victory in 2012. However, a lethargic base and an inability to capture swing voters with an uninspiring narrative is certainly not a winning formula. Combine all this with 9% unemployment and a probable double-dip recession and that result is one more ex-president out of work.
In all fairness, the one thing Obama has going for him is that the Republican field is equally horrible. Perry and Bachmann are unappealing to swing voters and they lack any real plan for the economy and the nation. Romney is bland and boring and his narrative has failed to captivate, and Congress’ approval rating is 12%. The choices are bad, making it not much of a surprise that a third of the voters want a viable third party and many want to see other candidates run for president.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Democrats need a challenger to Obama. They need an alternative to force the president to fight for his base and galvanize them. Obama needs to work for his party vote, he needs to define himself, he needs to learn how to fight. He has failed to do all of that so far, questioning both whether he deserves his party nomination and whether he can win reelection.
(Cartoon courtesy of the New Yorker Magazine.)