Does It Bother Anyone That Obama Is Playing Dirty?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 16 2012 7:42 PM

Obama Winning Ugly

Mitt Romney hopes voters are disappointed that Obama 2012 is nothing like Obama 2008.

Mitt Romney addresses the NAACP National Convention July 11, 2012 in Houston, Texas.
Mitt Romney addresses the NAACP National Convention at the Geoerge R. Brown Covention Center July 11.

Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images.

If Barack Obama wins this election, he's going to win ugly. Job creation is anemic, voters think the country is going in the wrong direction, and the president has been unable to convince them otherwise. So, the path is clear: Destroy your opponent and pander to your base. Obama Wan Kenobi, it's your only hope. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This has been obvious for months. It was clear, at the very least, from the president's campaign kick-off back in May. What's new is that Mitt Romney’s campaign is trying to make something of it. In a recent series of ads and television appearances, the Republican challenger argues that the president has discarded the high-minded principles of his 2008 campaign to keep the White House at any cost. Obama promised to lift the nation above petty sniping and political game-playing, and now he's doing exactly what he decried. The latest Romney ad called “Hope and Change?” starts with CBS's Bob Schieffer asking David Axelrod, "What ever happened to hope and change?" 

Do people really care about the niceties of campaigning? They don't like politicians. They expect them to say one thing and do another. Why would they be surprised when one of them is behaving exactly as they'd expect—especially when the other candidate is doing the same thing as well? 

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The Romney campaign is hoping that Barack Obama is a special case. In 2008, Barack Obama was supposed to be different. He ran his campaign on the promise that he could elevate the process. That was the key point in his larger campaign of hope. Polls at the time showed that people thought the American Dream of prosperity was no longer available to their kids. They bet on an inexperienced, one-term senator largely because he offered hope and a plausible case for change. Plus, he wasn't just talking about hope; as the first African-American president, he was a walking testament to the idea that the country could move forward. 

What's the opposite of hope? Disappointment. Focusing on Obama's change in tone is just an inroad to access people’s deeper disappointments. Romney advisers say that in focus groups, attendees regularly talk about how the president let them down. That Obama has turned out to be just another politician is the most symbolic disappointment that amplifies a broader disappointment in Obama's inability to improve the economy. Another new Romney ad (which may not be true) touches on a similar theme, arguing that the candidate who promised to rid Washington of political insiders is giving his donors special access. "The question shouldn't be: 'Are you better off?' " says a Romney adviser. "The question should be: 'Did you think you would be better off?' ”

When the car repair bill is double what you were quoted, you're disappointed. When the auto-repair shop made such a big deal about how cheap it would be, the bill is a gut punch. This is also the theme of the creepy American Crossroads ad in which the president appears to have been in office a lot longer than three years.

Whether this Romney strategy works depends on whether any swing voter continues to value Obama's original hope-and-change message. Some never bought it in the first place. In 2008, Obama was willing to tear down his opponents if necessary. He ran more negative ads than any candidate in history. This pragmatic group of voters may have enjoyed the talk of uplift the same way they might enjoy jokes at the start of a speech: fun to listen to but not the main thing. Moving on from George Bush was the main thing. 

Others who did buy the hope-and-change message the last time may have come to an accommodation with how it played out. Maybe they think it’s a shame, but it’s a mild disappointment they’re willing to overlook. (In Obama’s campaign launch video, this kind of voter is named Ed and he lives in North Carolina.)

The final group thinks Obama’s tougher side is an asset. Because the president faces opponents who will not meet him halfway, there’s no reason to continue to try to play nice. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that his primary job was defeating Barack Obama. This helps illustrate to voters who might care about fair dealing—otherwise why would Obama’s message have resonated in 2008—that the president wasn’t engaged with opponents who were interested in even maintaining the old niceties about cooperation.

How much disappointment a voter might feel also depends on how low Obama sinks. It's clear that his campaign’s claims about Mitt Romney’s outsourcing record at Bain are lower than the Sunday School standard, but they’re higher than the Willie Horton standard. They are lower than the Idealized Obama standard (outlined in his book The Audacity of Hope and his 2004 Democratic Convention speech), but they aren't necessarily lower than the current Depressing Campaign Baseline.

It is fair game for Obama to look at what Romney has said and match it against what he has done. Romney has said he will protect jobs from going overseas. Did he do that in the private sector? He has asked us to look at his expertise from those years in considering whether he has the skills and worldview required to fix the economy. It shouldn’t surprise him that the Obama campaign is looking. 

For a person seeking to undermine Romney’s claim that his business career gives him special experience, there’s plenty in the record to exploit. There's no particular evidence that suggests he has a special understanding about employees, the human cost of creative destruction, or the struggles of the middle class. He has at various times asserted that he has special insight, but he has never really made the case. Various news articles suggest his expertise was specialized and put a premium on making money rather than protecting workers. 

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