Everybody knows that, barring some unexpected catastrophic event, the economy will be the No. 1 issue on Americans’ minds when they pick a president next year. And if a vote for president were all about the No. 1 issue, Barack Obama would be in even greater danger of being tossed out of the White House. Fortunately, for Obama, voting for president is about a lot more than issues.
First of all, you can’t beat someone with no one. Right now, the Republicans have no one they’re crazy about and the most likely nominee – Mitt Romney – inspires little excitement among the GOP faithful. The last two incumbent presidents to be thrown out after one term were Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush – and they were beaten by two extraordinary campaigners: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (with a big assist from Ross Perot).
Secondly, voting for president is not all about the issues. It’s at least as much about picking someone people feel comfortable with as their national leader – someone with the right combination of hard head and soft heart, someone they can envision as Commander in Chief and the leader of the Free World. Voters don’t necessarily have to believe in the candidate they vote for president, but they have to believe that he or she has more of what it takes to be president than the other guy.
With only a relative handful of people citing terrorism and/or foreign policy as an extremely important concern in their vote for president (economy 54%, terrorism 36%, foreign policy 23%), it’s a reminder that just one year after George H.W. Bush’s smashing success in the Gulf War, “It’s the economy, stupid” became the mantra of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign.
“We’ve taken out al Qaida leaders and we’ve put them on the path to defeat,” Obama said last week. “We’re winding down the war in Iraq, and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”
Or, as Andrew Sullivan put it: “To rid the world of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Moammar Qaddafi within six months: if Obama were a Republican, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now.”
The militant milquetoast: But Obama is not only not a Republican, he’s seemed constitutionally incapable as president of appearing to be much more than a milquetoast law professor. We know he’s got a soft heart, But where’s the hard head?
Yes, he personally gave the command for Navy Seals to take out bin Laden – a mission the braggart George W. Bush never accomplished. But Obama and his communications staff have utterly failed to make the point that under this president, America is leading, whether from the front, middle or behind, in a way it seemed unable for eight years under the tough-talkin’ Texan.
“President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women,” Romney said the other day, after Obama announced he would withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of the year.
Romney went on to question “whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.”
WTF, you might ask, is this guy talking about? As Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt rightly said, “Mitt Romney didn’t lay out a plan to end the war in Iraq in his foreign policy agenda — he barely even mentioned Iraq — but he is apparently willing to leave American troops there without identifying a new mission. Mitt Romney’s foreign policy experience is limited to his work as a finance executive shipping American jobs overseas.”
What’s astonishing is not that Romney, Gov. Rick Perry and other Republicans continue to natter idiotically about Obama’s “failure” to provide leadership abroad, it’s that the White House has been so excruciatingly inept at making the case for the enormous success Obama has had.
Our old friend Karen Finney was out there the other day, making the argument: “Look at the progress the president can make when he doesn’t have Republicans obstructing him,” she said. Obama has delivered: bin Laden, al-Awalki, Qaddafi, Tunisia, Egypt – all the result of direct or indirect action, or assisted by careful diplomacy, of the Obama administration.
“It is very important for any incumbent to be able to talk about promises made and promises kept,” Finney said.
The galvanizing effect of negativity: So take some damn credit. Sure, Mr. President, you can’t overcome Americans’ concern about jobs and the economy. And with the Republicans in Congress openly dedicated to preventing you from accomplishing anything domestically, you may have to just hope things get better.
But you can do what Clinton did in his re-election – make it crystal clear that the Republicans are blocking progress, continue to call for a tax on millionaires (which the GOP finds incredibly threatening because it’s so popular) and point to the restoration of American leadership in the worldwide fight against terrorism and dictatorship.
It’s way past time to borrow from the GOP playbook, Mr. President. Republicans have been successful, in part, because they rally American against things – communism, terrorism, Islamic extremism, etc. The Permanent War on Whatever was the strategic brilliance of the Rovian strategy.
Obama has demonstrated the ultimate in being against some very bad things: he’s literally wiped them out or helped to do so. Sure, Democrats like to be for things – justice, peace, health care, democracy, etc. But there’s an angry electorate out there, the economy sucks and they want revenge.
No more Mr. Nice Guy. To borrow a phrase from a former mayor* we know, voters need to be galvanized — in a war on ignorance, apathy and greed.
* Tom McEnery of San Jose