Presidential re-elections are referendums. They are referendums on the economy, on the state of the country, on the performance of the president. Voters they look back four years and ask themselves how they judge the performance of the incumbent president. The same will be true this year with Obama. But unlike four years ago, President Obama faces daunting challenges running for re-election, including facing this referendum on his first term and convincing Americans he deserves four more years.
Four years ago Obama had several advantages in his bid for the White House that no longer exist, or at least are muted compared to 2008. What are they?
Perhaps the most important advantage Obama had was the generational factor. By that, Obama wad the choice of a new generation as the baby boomers, Gen Xers, and especially the Millennials come out to support him. Obama had the cool factor. He was young and chic, hip, and a rock star. Voting studies demonstrated that he had overwhelming support and turnout among younger voters, losing only to the aging Silent Generation. But today Obama is no longer cool. He is older, greyer, and not as chic as he once was. While in 08 he embodied optimism, Romney was correct at the RNC that now for many he is about disappointment and disillusionment. He had such promise and opportunity so many say in the coffee shops, but he failed to live up to the expectations.
Obama failed to live up to these expectations because in part about his narrative. The 2008 campaign was about hope and change, but what change was about was never clear. It was an empty bottle which people filled with their own hops. Obama also created expectations that he would change politics and Washington and solve the pressing problems of the day. That did not happen. It did not for many reasons. Yes the Republicans sabotaged compromise, but the Democrats failed to cooperate too. Yes the scope of the problems were greater than he and others estimated, especially with the economy, but Obama too had a generational chance to push for bold ideas and instead he squandered away opportunity. He just never thought bold. Thus, change did not occur.
But generational politics works in a different way–demographics. The Silent angry generation is dying off. More states are reliably Democratic than Republican and the racial demographics in the swing states favor Obama.
The Missing Narrative
Now four years later the narrative of change is impossible to use. Republicans used it successfully in 2010 and again are using it again–arguing for change in the White House while mocking the hopey changey narrative. Obama’s problem remains again the issue of narrative. In 2010 the narrative was “It could have been worse.” No excitement here. Obama’s biggest challenge in Charlotte this week will be to try to offer the new narrative.
Obama is the incumbent. That also forestalls running on the banner of change. Asking voters whether they are better off now than four years ago was a powerful challenge by Ronald Reagan in 1980 that led to the defeat of Jimmy Carter. Romney posed this question at the RNC again, and if swing voters make this the question that decides their choice, Obama loses. As pointed out scores of times, no sitting president besides FDR and Reagan have won re-election with unemployment above 7%. It should be over for Obama, except for the fact that the Republicans have no plan, no candidate who is likeable, or a demographic that works to their advantage. There are just not enough aging angry white guys out there to win an election. Yet given the facts that data suggest the top 1% along with Wall Street are doing better now than four years ago, why they are not supporting him seems perplexing.
Incumbency brings advantages but it also means you are held responsible for the status quo. Obama is responsible rightly or wrongly and he needs to convince people that your record is worthy of four more years. Obama does have an impressive record–the auto bailout, health care reform, Dodd-Frank, “Don’t ask, don’t tell is gone. But Obama has not told his story well and he needs to do a better job than he has.
Obama has a significant political cash advantage four years ago. Business broke from the Republicans and supported him. Now Romney and the GOP will have more cash and Wall Street has turned against him. Obama runs as an incumbent with a cash disadvantage.
Technology and Grassroots
Obama lacks the big pockets he had last time but he still has the powerful community organizer grass roots structure that he had four years ago. Additionally, four years ago Obama became the first Twitter and Facebook president, using the new and social media in unique ways that helped him reach out to a new generation. Others have caught up here, and Twitter and Facebook are no longer cutting edge. Yet Obama still has an advantage here.
Four years ago voters like Obama. They still do and this is his biggest advantage over Romney who no one really likes or is passionate over. When push comes to shove likeability is a major factor for candidates. Romney runs on competence but plumbers seldom win presidential if any elections
The political-economic world of 2012 is very different from the one of 2008 when Obama won. Obama faces many challenges to a second term. What he and the Democrats need to do this week in Charlotte is more than simply say the Republicans are bad. They need to make the case for Obama, convincing voters that despite what appears to be the case four years later, they are better off and should award him with a second term. A term that as of yet we have to what he wants to accomplish.