Negative Attacks a Risky Strategy for Barack Obama
Barack Obama is campaigning on Mitt Romney's faults rather than his successes
June 4, 2012
It's not often true that Americans reject negative campaigning. But they certainly seem to be doing so now in the case of President Obama's attacks on Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The president recognizes he can't improve the economy much between now and Election Day. And he can't count on outside events to help—the situations in Europe and the Middle East are more likely to get worse than better by fall. So he has tried to make this campaign about Romney's fitness for office.
Bain Capital. The "War on Women." Dogs for Obama. Efforts to tie Romney to George W. Bush. Questions about Romney's term as governor of Massachusetts. Fox News' Chris Stirewalt says, "[N]o incumbent American president has ever gone so negative, so early." And the president promises to keep it up, to define Romney as a bad man now, and then possibly switch to a policy discussion later.
Usually, this is done the other way around. Candidates present their vision for what they'd do with a first (Romney) or second (Obama) term. Then, they court those still undecided through negative ads.
Doing this backwards is risky for President Obama. He's losing support among independents, women, and business. Peggy Noonan says the attacks make Obama "look small and scared." Even President Clinton has objected to his assault on venture capital and said Romney "crosses the qualification threshold," which many observers took as a signal to lighten up on the Bain rhetoric.
Meanwhile, Romney is making up ground in overall favorability, is gaining among women and independents, and has seen his favorable/unfavorable numbers pull even for the first time at 44/44.
Stirewalt says the president's campaign is counting on the convention in Charlotte to turn things around. His advisers still believe he can reset the debate with dramatic oratory. He got elected the first time based on one moving convention speech; he could pull it off again.
But a more prudent strategy would be to adopt the advice of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and "seize the high ground" by pointing to his accomplishments — saving the auto industry, steering us past a financial meltdown—and emphasizing the popular provisions of Obamacare. Then, the debate would shift to what he would do—or, in many cases, already is doing—to help America.
On the other hand, at the 2008 convention, Obama told voters, "If you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from."
He doesn't have much of a record, and perhaps he has no fresh ideas. Otherwise, he would follow his own advice.