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One Year From Convention, What Does Obama Say?

A Commentary by Thomas F. Schaller

With Barack Obama's 2012 renomination speech in Charlotte now about a year away, here's a very simple political question with a potentially complex answer: In his 2012 bid to win re-election, what messages and themes will the president employ?

However good the field of potential Republican challengers may or may not be -- and there is ample evidence the public is non-plussed by the GOP contenders -- winning reelection will not be easy. As president, Obama has managed to anger and frighten his most conservative opponents, and disappoint and frustrate what were once some of his most ardent, liberal backers. And if you think the president's ability to equally infuriate left and right has managed to delight the supposedly critical mass middle, think again: Independents and moderates are increasingly displeased with the president's performance as well.

That said, the calm, even-tempered, cerebral President Obama may need to give way to a more combative, visceral Candidate Obama next year. Indeed, the 2012 presidential race is setting up to be a classic test case of the endangered incumbent. When an incumbent seeking reelection has an approval rating above 50%, the election is usually an inconsequential, one-stage affirmation on the incumbent's performance that effectively renders the personality, policies, promises and performance of the challenger moot.

But President Obama is now, and almost certainly will be a year from now, hovering below the 50% approval threshold. In such situations, the contest devolves into a two-stage decision for those voters not yet or no longer sold on the incumbent's reelection worthiness. For them, judgments about the quality of the potential Republican replacement become paramount. Surely the Obama campaign recognizes that they will have to make the Republican alternative seem far worse than reelecting, even if grudgingly, the president to a second term.

This was exactly the case in 2004, when George W. Bush headed into election with a net-negative rating on the Iraq war and a host of domestic issues, but still eked out a win. To orchestrate Bush's reelection under such adverse political conditions, political guru Karl Rove devised a media campaign in which the vast majority of money was spent on ads pillorying Democratic nominee John Kerry as a soft-on-terrorism flip-flopper. Rove made Bush's alternative unacceptable.

Likewise, in order to win President Obama is going to have to go negative. He and his campaign have no other choice. Reading the daily missives churned out by the Democratic National Committee, as I have the past few months, it's clear that the White House is capable of casting Mitt Romney (and more recently Rick Perry) in as unfavorably a light as possible.

But the DNC or even the White House is not the same as the president-as-candidate. And when it comes time for Obama himself to go negative, two related questions must be asked. First, is the president capable of going negative? And second, how much would doing so ruin the positive, hope-and-change political brand he so carefully constructed for himself in 2008?

Assuming the answer to the first question is yes, by finding his inner attack dog the president could regain favor among liberals who want to see in Obama the kind of fight-to-the-death political style that they came to grudgingly admire in Bill Clinton, despite the former Democratic president's policy centrism. But baring his teeth could turn away some of the same moderates and independents originally attracted to Obama's unifying 2008 image.

As for his affirmative message, Obama has problems there, too. Echoing a sentiment gaining broader support among the president's liberal critics, Michael Tomasky recently argued in The Daily Beast that the president's failure to be the transformational figure he promised to be in 2008 has jeopardized his presidency. "Obama also has a highly inflated opinion of his own ability to unite people…[but he] needs to quit trying to transform politics and just focus on winning fights on behalf of a careworn middle class," writes Tomasky. "Otherwise, politics is going to transform him into a nicely intentioned one-term president."

Indeed, even if one credits Obama with truly believing he could bring Red and Blue Americas together, by the time the fight over the Affordable Care Act was completed it was clear that even the loftiest candidate rhetoric and citizen expectations can be brought back to earth rather quickly by Washington's fractured and divisive politics and its powerful, entrenched interests. That said, the president would be foolish to promise to deliver some sort of post-partisan utopia in a second term that he was clearly unable to deliver in his first.

But what message? The economy is bad, but the autumn 2008 financial crisis could have been worse. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, but without initially ramping up troop levels in the former or drawing them down in the latter the two conflicts could have been worse. As Paul Krugman and other economists warned, the stimulus package was probably too small to dramatically boost GDP -- despite evidence that the stimulus continues to do some good -- but absent any Keynesian measures the recession could have been worse. But in a recent Time magazine cover story on the 2012 race, Joe Klein summed up rather nicely what must be painfully obvious to the Obama team. "Obama will have to come up with stronger argument than 'It could have been worse'," writes Klein.

Ironically, the president may want to do exactly as his immediate predecessor did and shift attention as much as possible away from domestic matters to foreign policy. The war in Iraq is drawing down. Afghanistan has stabilized some, and Osama bin Laden was killed in a daring raid the president ordered. But Obama can only change the subject so much or so long because right now Americans are, above all else, worried about their homes, their kitchen tables and their pocketbooks. How does he convince enough of them to stay the course, so to speak, with his economic policies the way enough of them did with Bush's military and terrorism policies to earn a second term?

Clues can be found in political speeches the president has delivered within the friendly confines of recent Democratic fundraisers. "When I said, 'change we can believe in,' I didn't say 'change we can believe in tomorrow'," Obama said to a crowd of admirers, including his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, at a 50th birthday celebration in Chicago on August 3. "Not 'change we can believe in next week.' We knew this was going to take time, because we've got this big, messy, tough democracy. And that's the great thing about America is, is that there are all these contentious ideas that are out there, and we've got to make our case."

In short, Obama is most likely to frame his election as an appeal for four more years because the problems he inherited simply take more than four years to fix. He'll have to make the case, as he says, that not only could things have been worse these past four years but that with another four he can actually make them significantly better. Whether Americans -- or a majority of them, at least -- are willing to demonstrate that kind of patience is the central question upon which the 2012 election will turn.

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South and national political columnist for the Baltimore Sun.

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