I once heard a political consultant say: “The point of getting elected is getting reelected.” Cynical, shallow, insiderish? You bet—all of that. But there is truth to it, too, especially for presidents. There hasn’t been a president from John Adams to Barack Obama who didn’t think about reelection every single day, whose guts didn’t churn at the thought of losing, being herded by history into that sorry caste of single-termers. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are both fine men, but neither is ever going to be ranked in the first (or even second) tier. The cover charge for having a shot at greatness is that you have to win the second time.
And so here Obama stands, at the end of a murderously rough first term, still very much in the game—in fact, still the favorite, if you study the electoral map—but oh-so-close to the precipice, facing the most important week of his life, a week that will determine whether he’ll have that shot.
He wins, and potential greatness clearly awaits him. Most signs suggest that he’d be presiding over a recovery and maybe, in a year or two, a booming economy, so he’d be the president who led us out of the crisis. He’d have a chance to execute that elusive “grand bargain” with Congress over the budget and entitlement reform. Then suppose he got an immigration bill, and managed to notch one meaningful foreign-policy achievement? That, along with overseeing the details of the new health-care law, would amount to a very consequential presidency indeed.
But it could all go up in smoke, and we all know why. That first debate. An unchallenged Mitt Romney reversing many key positions without Obama ever calling him on it turned what had been a cakewalk into a firewalk. And that was all on Obama: it came down to a character weakness, his vastly inflated sense of his ability to pull the iron out of the fire (he must have bluffed his way through countless book reports growing up). No preparation needed. I’m the president. I know stuff. I got this.
And now it’s neck and neck. Romney can run a great campaign, spend untold millions in the final days, do whatever, but it’s still the president who has more agency here—because he’s the president, and because he’s just the more interesting human being, the one who provokes reactions. Who out there is voting for Romney? Mormons, and a few low-double-digit handicappers down at the club. But most Americans are voting for or against Obama.
Just as a flaw in his character opened the door, a strength in his character can close it. “I got this” is a phrase associated with Obama, going back to 2008, a phrase he used to assure nervous aides and fans that he had the sitch under control even at its bleakest. If you see a T-shirt with an Obama image and those three words, it’s meant to refer to his preternatural cool and his ability to pull off the impossible.
Maybe in 2008. But in the last four years, his “I got this” moments haven’t been so appealing—or just haven’t worked. He couldn’t roll Netanyahu on settlements or House Republicans on the debt ceiling. The situations he’s walked into with “I got this” arrogance—the first debate being Exhibit A—have ended disastrously.
Instead, his best moments have usually been his most vulnerable, when he drops that shtick and lays himself bare before the public. When he goes against type and drops the jazz-cool façade and becomes one of the “us” he’s always preaching about. That more-open Obama will show that he’s hungry to keep doing this job and will lay out enough of a second-term agenda (as he began to do last week) to let voters know he has business he considers unfinished. The Obama who works that mojo can recapture the narrative of the race and seal this thing.
Romney may not have much in the mojo department, and he may have been lying about his policies at that first debate, but he deserves some credit. The subject of narrative is key here: ever since his Oct. 3 triumph, he and his team have skillfully built up a narrative that the polls supported—up to a point—and that much of the national media bought into.
As this story goes, Romney went from charmless stuffed suit to “Hey, this guy seems perfectly OK” literally overnight. He dropped his right-wing positions, and the masterstroke was that he got the right wing to accept his doing it. Crushing your opponent in a debate will buy you considerable good will, and what it bought Romney from the Limbaughs and others who’d never been big fans was whatever room he needed to maneuver, as long as he vanquished the hated Kenyan.
Romney gained in the polls. He led in some, trailed in others, but what he managed to do throughout most of October was to make it seem like he was doing a lot better than he actually was. Consider this: according to nonpareil number cruncher Nate Silver of The New York Times, Romney’s chance of winning has never gotten higher than a fall peak of 38.9 percent on Oct. 12. Not especially close to a half-and-half chance.
But most of the press saw things differently. Reporters saw a knight on a galloping charger—or maybe Gallup-ing, after the most notable polling firm whose results were very favorable to him. The phrase “Romney’s race to lose”—a sports locution used to refer to the idea that the favorite now has to screw something up not to win—began popping up in headlines in mid-October. Joe Biden beat Paul Ryan in their debate. Obama woke up, bounced back, and won the second debate. But the story was still Romney.
Political reporters are often more interested in a good narrative than facts. The facts were that by mid-October, Obama was bouncing back, a little. But it was subtle. There was no big moment, as there had been with Romney’s reversal. You couldn’t smell it. So while Silver was ticking Romney’s chances back down to the low 30s, most of the media was still writing the “Mitt’s Riding High” story.
Again, give Team Romney credit for understanding this. Win or lose, they’ve been savvy. By October’s third week, they started planting little seeds trying to sell the press on the idea that victory was now well nigh inevitable. They sent Ryan to campaign in Pittsburgh, leading to breathy “Is Pennsylvania back in play?” stories. (They also sent him to a homeless shelter and out to give a big but who-cares poverty speech, suggesting that their internal polling was indicating that Ryan still counted as a slight negative and needed to undergo some image-softening.)
And the morning after the third presidential debate, which Romney was judged to have lost fairly badly, Politico’s Mike Allen led his morning Playbook email—read and taken as conventional wisdom by every political insider in the country—with a quote from a Romney aide saying, “We’re going to win.”
This is an old Republican game: if you don’t like the reality that exists, try to create a new one. Remember the famous quote back in the George W. Bush era from an unnamed Bush aide to New York Times reporter Ron Suskind claiming that Suskind was trapped in the “reality-based community,” while Bush and his team “create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
That was about the war in Iraq, where Bush & Co. created a reality, all right, albeit not one to brag about. But the mindset is one Republican political operatives generally share. One can’t really blame Team Romney for trying this. In fact, why shouldn’t they? No campaign worth its weight in chads is going to concede that the path to 270 electoral votes is, yes, much harder for their guy than the other guy. So the end result, by the middle of last week? Romney’s momentum had in fact stopped the week before, but his campaign’s clever tactics made it appear that the Big Mo was still with them.
What was Obama doing meanwhile? Winning debates. Raising gobs of money. Putting together the vaunted field operation—in most swing states, he has two, three, or four times the number of field offices Romney has—that is supposed to be his ace in the hole.
So certainly not nothing. But in terms of public or at least media perception, he wasn’t quite punching through. I’m sure the Chicago brain trust told him: Don’t worry, boss. We can get you to 272 even without Ohio, but we think we have Ohio, and without it, Romney’s cooked.
It may be that all that is true, but it’s playing not to lose. It’s “I got this” campaigning that reinforces some of Obama’s worst instincts. It makes him feel he doesn’t have to take any chances. Call it leading from behind, campaign style.
There’s no time for that now. In the final days, Obama has four tasks. First, he is fighting for his political life, and for once he has to look like it. Not in a panicked way, obviously, but in a lean and hungry one, communicating that he really, deeply wants to be rehired. If his energized campaign swing late last week is any indication—he was tired and hoarse but communicating urgency at every stop—the president gets that this is what he needs to do. More, please.
Second, he needs to communicate that he wants to be rehired not just for the sake of winning, but to accomplish some concrete things. Obama was strangely resistant until recently, when staff pressed him on the need to release a more specific second-term agenda. The 20-page plan that came out last week will not go down in history as rivaling the Marshall Plan in terms of specificity, but it’s something. It has nine points to Romney’s five, and while it’s obviously geared to some extent toward swing-state audiences (more manufacturing), it’s a very middle-class, meat-and-potatoes document.
Third, he should keep pressing the good economic news. Last week, Gallup found that for the first time since 2007, a plurality of Americans feel they’re better off than they were a year ago. He can’t let evidence like that just sit on the cutting-room floor.
And finally, he needs to stay on Romney and Ryan. If we truly are turning an economic corner, Obama must say that this is exactly the worst time to go back to tax cuts for the well off and deregulation. Obama doesn’t really seem to have driven this message home in recent days.
And so here we are. Romney is going to fight like mad this last week. There’s no question at all about how badly he wants this. And there’s even less question about how badly conservatives want Obama out of there. Fever pitch doesn’t begin to describe where the conservative media will be in the campaign’s final days. I don’t know if the Fox News Channel has a house physician, but if he exists he’d better load up on Quaaludes.
Romney is counting on undecided voters to break his way. The idea that undecideds always break to the challenger rather than the incumbent is a bit of a myth, but one thing above all else may make them go his way: if he seems to be radiating more energy. Late deciders vote on things like which one looks like he’s going to win.
So Obama needs to stay out of his “I got this” mode. He needs to signal to his people: I need you here; we are on a mission; we have great things to do. If Obama owns the storyline of the closing week, he won’t have to worry about any woulda-shoulda-coulda dinners with Carter and Bush Sr.