With the general election now underway, it’s tempting to assume that President Obama has a built-in advantage by having at his disposal a campaign operation that earned universal plaudits in 2008. But as Team Obama itself already knows—or, if not, will soon come to realize—the 2012 contest will be very different from the president’s triumphant march to the White House four years ago. The key question will be how the old campaign staff responds to the new electoral landscape. Here are seven realities that Team Obama will have to adjust to.
2012 will be a referendum, not a choice. One of the best established findings of contemporary political science is that in presidential contests involving an incumbent, the incumbent’s record is central to the public’s judgment. A race for an open Oval Office is about promises and personalities; a campaign for reelection is about the record and performance of the person currently occupying the White House. To be sure, Obama can offer his vision for the future and new proposals to flesh it out. But if the people don’t approve of his record, that won’t matter much.
No more promises of bipartisanship. Obama will have to abandon—or at least radically modify—the promise to heal a polarized political system that was at the heart of his rise to national prominence, starting with his dramatic address at the 2004 Democratic convention. And because his inability to foster this reconciliation has disappointed many people who voted for him in 2008, he’ll have to explain why he couldn’t do it in a way that redirects that disappointment toward the Republican Party and its nominee.
No more “Yes, we can.” The atmospherics of the current race will be completely different than they were four years ago. Because the national reaction to the administration’s agenda has been shaped by the partisan polarization in Congress (the pervasiveness of which appeared to surprise Obama when he took office), the hope for rapid transformation has yielded to the reality of incremental progress against tough odds and entrenched opposition. Thus, the exuberant poetry of 2008 will have to give way to sober prose.
No more youth movement. There is no way that the Obama campaign can expect to recreate the excitement that moved so many young and first-time voters not only to turn out to vote but also to work their hearts out for their hero. While it’s unlikely that Romney will get a larger share of the youth vote than McCain did, it’s equally unlikely that Obama will get as many votes from this pool as he did four years ago.
Blue-state big business has moved on. Team Obama will not be able to raise the kind of money from Wall Street and Silicon Valley that it did in 2008. For complex reasons, relations between the president and substantial portions of the private sector have soured. Although the President’s criticisms are mild by New Deal standards, members of the New York financial sector reportedly resent being called “fat cats,” and some are responding by closing their checkbooks. Worse yet, some may soon be opening them to Mitt Romney, who speaks their language and is willing to stroke their egos.
Selecting a campaign message will be a zero-sum choice. Unlike in 2008, Obama will have to make some hard choices about the thematics of his campaign. His current populist rhetoric, which got its start four months ago with a major speech in Kansas, is more likely to arouse the Democratic base than to rekindle the affections of skeptical suburban and independent voters. A return to the “winning the future” focus of the President’s 2011 State of the Union address would do just the reverse. After a 2008 election in which a single message could tap both the anger of the Democratic base and the Bush fatigue of the broader electorate, Obama now faces a balancing act that previous Democratic candidates had to face—and, if they hoped to win, had to master.
Obama is no longer the master of his fate. During the 2008 campaign, Obama could and did seize the initiative in the face of unexpected events. His agile response to the mid-September financial meltdown propelled him into a lead that he never surrendered. In 2012, by contrast, he will be at the mercy of events that he cannot control. The Supreme Court will decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act. A military confrontation between Israel and Iran would put the administration in the no-win situation it has struggled to avoid, with incalculable consequences for our national security as well as our politics. If job creation returns to the strong pace of the late winter and remains there through the fall, he will be reelected with room to spare. But if the middling March employment report is a harbinger of things to come, the electorate’s evaluation of his performance will be harsh, and the road to reelection very steep indeed.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.