Between the end of the primaries and the start of the conventions, presidential campaigns are message wars. Both sides test slogans and proposals while trying to frame their opponents in memorably unfavorable ways. In this phase, President Barack Obama has been the clear winner.
Obama has used the element of surprise, has taken risks that seem to be paying off, and has put his opponent on the defensive. He first seized the initiative in May when he endorsed gay marriage, changing his longstanding position. Even some on the right praised the president for acting on principle when the politics seemed against him.
But the politics of that issue may actually be on Obama’s side. Taking a moral stance on an issue of civil rights reanimated liberal voters who had drifted into disaffection, especially young voters who were crucial to his 2008 victory. Mitt Romney, who didn’t expect the move, found himself in an awkward position. With his radical Republican challengers dispatched, conservative positions on social issues were the last thing Romney wanted to emphasize. At a press conference, he called his own opposition to gay marriage “my preference” and declined to criticize Obama for changing his position or pandering to a Democratic special interest group. Romney’s response was essentially a tactical surrender that underscored the inevitably of liberal victory on the issue.
This same dynamic was at play last week when Obama issued an executive order that allows illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to remain in the country. Obama’s unanticipated move aligned sound policy with good politics, reawakening Latino supporters who had lost heart over his failure to get a more comprehensive reform of immigration laws through Congress. The decision will play particularly well in swing states such as Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico, where Hispanic turnout can be decisive.
With his immigration surprise, Obama showed his ability to act without help from the recalcitrant Republican-led Congress that is likely to remain in place even if he wins a second term. He again stole a march on Romney, who was in the midst of figuring out how to “evolve” from the insincere, hard-line anti-immigration stance he adopted in the primaries to something friendlier. On the CBS program Face the Nation, Romney was asked several times whether he would overturn the president’s decision. Each time, he dodged the question and refused to say. A week later, he remains stuck on the issue—reluctant to attach himself to his party’s anti-immigration absolutists, unwilling to concede that the president is right, and with no apparent position of his own.
The president has seldom been a risk taker; he has operated within the boundaries of the possible, avoiding postures that yield no results. But he and his campaign have cleverly recognized that Romney’s slow-footedness and lack of imagination present an opportunity for them to shine in contrast. They have reversed the usual dynamic of re-election campaigns, highlighting the challenger’s stodginess while making Obama into a nimble incumbent.
These stratagems show every sign of paying off. Obama’s positions convey a Reaganesque sense of optimism about social change while associating Romney’s views with fear and the past. Romney, whose approach to politics has always been to rearrange his views in relation to the next election, has thus far been stymied by this rabbit-punching. He has been on the defensive, landing few blows of his own and failing to come up with any memorable proposals. His strategy seems to be to trumpet increments of bad news about the economy. That is not only a risk-averse strategy, but also a sour one. This week, Romney’s campaign reportedly asked Florida’s Republican governor to stop trumpeting his state’s economic recovery, lest the credit accrue to his opponent.
Romney’s likely vice presidential choices point further in the direction of playing it too safe for his own good. Taking the wrong lesson from John McCain’s reckless choice of Sarah Palin, Romney is by various accounts looking to a boring Midwestern white man such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Ohio Sen. Rob Portman to be his running mate. These choices would generate minimal excitement for a campaign that badly needs some.
A version of this story also appears in the Financial Times.