Barack Obama: No more Mr. Nice guy

Just how ugly is the 2012 campaign going to get?

by Luiza Ch. Savage

When Mitt Romney finally clinched the delegates he needed to win the Republican presidential nomination last week, the U.S. general election race began in earnest. President Barack Obama’s campaign has given a first look at its campaign strategy; 2008’s feel-good “hope and change” theme is long gone. The high-minded and genial candidate once dubbed “Obambi” has given way to the steely President who took out Osama bin Laden and has now set his sights on Mitt Romney.

No more Mr. Nice guy

Jim Young/Reuters

Even some Democrats were stunned by a recent Obama campaign ad attacking Romney’s successful career at Bain Capital as a story of corporate looting and worker exploitation. “Like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us,” says a worker in the cinematic campaign ad; it profiles a Kansas City steel mill that was shut down after Romney’s firm took over. Says another: “They came in and they destroyed—it was like watching an old friend bleed to death.”

Like the “Swift Boat” attacks that allies of George W. Bush unleashed in 2004, assailing John Kerry’s military record, Obama’s ads don’t highlight an opponent’s weaknesses, rather, they seek to reverse his biggest strength—in Romney’s case, a reputation as an expert in engineering economic turnarounds. The Obama ad focused on one company: Kansas City’s GST Steel, which Bain Capital bought in 1993, then shuttered in 2001. Bain, over those eight years, loaded the steel company with debt, using the borrowed money to pay itself dividends; when it eventually took the company into bankruptcy, workers lost jobs, benefits and some pension payments. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning fact-checking website, rated the ad “mostly true.” What it left out was the broader picture. As CEO of Bain Capital, Romney helped successfully turn around other companies, creating thousands of jobs. Several business-friendly Democrats lined up to denounce the ad, among them, Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, who called it “nauseating.” Obama’s former auto bailout adviser, Steve Rattner, labelled it “unfair.” Even Bill Clinton chimed in, defending Romney’s business career as “sterling.” Watch the video:

But Obama dug in. “This is not a distraction,” he told reporters. “This is what this campaign is going to be about.” By touting his business experiences as a qualification for the presidency, Romney made Bain’s record fair game, the President said. “When you’re President, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot.”

Under partisan assault from their own side, the skeptical Democrats rapidly backpedalled their critique. Pro-Romney forces, meanwhile, flirted with an even nastier line of attack. Republican strategists had urged conservative donor Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, a brokerage house, to mount a $10-million racially charged ad campaign. Sen. John McCain’s campaign had rejected the same line of attack in 2008; it would paint Obama as an anti-American radical by highlighting his association with his former preacher, Jeremiah Wright. Republican strategists behind the proposed campaign urged Romney to “do exactly what McCain would not let us do.” But after the New York Times published details of the proposal, Romney denounced it, and Ricketts said he would not run the campaign.

These early skirmishes raise the question: just how ugly will it get? The 2012 campaign already promises to be the most expensive ever. Forecasts estimate $2 billion could be spent by both sides and their allies. The growing role of independent “Super PACs”—which may accept unlimited donations thanks to recent court rulings, allowing a small handful of billionaires to drive the race—suggest the tone may go beyond the control of the candidates. Indeed, the attacks on Kerry’s war record were run by a group with far less funding, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

And incumbent presidents often run more negative campaigns because they are trying to change the conversation away from a referendum on their own record to a contrast with their rival. “There is a perfect parallel. In 2000, Bush ran as a ‘compassionate conservative’ who was going to change the tone of Washington,” notes Michael Dimock, associate research director at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “And then when he ran for re-election in 2004, he went after Kerry in a very negative way.”

Back in 2008, Obama didn’t need to attack McCain personally—he just needed to link him to the unpopular Bush while riding the wave of frustration following the then-unfolding financial crisis. But for Obama, switching tack is no easy matter. In 2008, he positioned himself as a new generation of political leader who would unite “red” and “blue” America and transcend racial divisions. Voters believed him. On the eve of the 2008 election, 70 per cent of voters polled predicted Obama would “be able to work with members of both parties in order to get things done,” according to a New York Times poll. An Associated Press poll shortly after Obama’s election found that 74 per cent of Americans felt “hopeful.” So does his move to a nastier campaign style risk tarnishing his image? “The 2008 campaign is still fresh in our minds and the contrast is going to stand out more. It’s a challenge for them to make that pivot,” said Dimock.

The Bain attacks also risk feeding the critics’ case that Obama is anti-business. Already, Romney is using Obama’s Bain ad as further evidence that “President Obama doesn’t understand the free market.” But pollsters say the negative road may not be all that risky. A major difference from 2008 is this race is tight: Romney and Obama have been neck and neck ever since Romney emerged as the presumptive nominee. In contrast, during the 2008 presidential race, Obama generally polled above McCain by margins that oscillated from a few points to double digits.

With the country deeply divided, and few truly persuadable voters in the mix, the campaign seems to have concluded the path to victory lies with turning out their existing supporters to the polls. “The basic subgroups that form the coalitions are very similar to what went on in 2008,” says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief for Gallup polls. Newport says Obama has the overwhelming support of Hispanic voters, Asians, blacks and white people who are not married or not religious, as well as whites with postgraduate education. Romney gets the rest. “I don’t see a huge amount of change,” he says.

The rise of the Tea Party movement that helped Republicans take over the House of Representatives in 2010 highlighted the power of mobilizing, rather than growing, the party base. It was a mirror image of the 2008 election: Democratic voters stayed home in 2010, while conservative Republicans flocked to the polls.

Democrats seem to have learned the lesson, as this video shows:

This time, the two candidates seem more evenly matched in terms of enthusiasm—so mobilizing supporters to make it to the polls may be more crucial than trying to win over swing voters. Negative ads may alienate some independents, but they can help anger and incite the base.

Will the nastiest ad campaign win? Not necessarily. The tight race has changed very little in recent months despite the ads and the spending by both camps, and outside groups. And there are still several wild cards: the looming Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of Obama’s health care reform law, expected in late June; Romney’s eventual choice of running mate; and the possibility of some major national security crisis.

The biggest unknown of all could be the level of unemployment in November, which could turn on the extent of the impact of the unfolding euro crisis. Pocketbook concerns could simply render everything else moot, says Newport—including campaign spending. “To me, the most important factor won’t be ads,” says Newport, “but the economy.” May’s unexpected uptick in the unemployment rate suggested a slowing economy and sent a chill through Obama’s supporters. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, responded with a feel-good web ad in which he asked supporters ignore headlines and focus on registering Democratic voters in what he boasted will be the “most sophisticated grassroots organization this country has ever seen.” “Just shy of 50 per cent [of voters] say the economy will be better in a year. If it can get up above 50 per cent, that’s great news for Obama,” says Dimock. “If it stays in the high 40s, boy—I don’t know.”

For more on this story, see macleans.ca




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Barack Obama: No more Mr. Nice guy

  1. And what was Obama’s experience to run a country when he became president? Nil. And now we know he hasn’t learnt much on the job. At least Romney created job, which is what the USA need.

  2. “The steely President who took out Osama bin Laden?” You have got to be kidding.
    I thought it was the job of journalists to get beyond the trivial talking points.
    I guess that’s not the way you do it at MACLEANS.

    • One can either have access to, in this case the White House, or you can be frozen out because the White house does not look good.
      Such is the faustian bargain foisted upon those who have the White House beat at this time.

  3. Even the dead knows what Obama has done for his country, and the progress he made regardless of what he inherited, but if you want to know Mr Romney’s record you don’t need to be alive …

  4. The jackass president said yesterday the US economy was doing “just fine” despite the 8.2% unemployment rate and the $16 trillion in debt. I can’t wait to see him queuing up in the unemployment line after November 6.

    • And, what do you propose as better than ‘just fine’? 8.2% unemployment is not to bad, especially considering the size of America and little more than 3 years ago the unemployment rate was over 10% (2% higher then than now). Also, that 16 trillion dollar debt you speak of was accumulated by previous administrations; and Obama inherited a shit sandwich of a situation. And, now, everyone is going to be taking a big bite out of the shit sandwich, situation that is the 16 trillion dollar American debt. Oh, worthy to mention: The American economy is still worth over 60 trillion dollars, so in no way, shape or form. Am I worried about America and its 16 trillion dollar debt. No. Not even in the least worried about America or its 16 trillion dollar debt. Got to spend money to make money, right? At least steps have been taken to correct the issue of such a massive debt and correcting faults left by previous administrations.

      • How much debt did he inherit???? Look at what he has added to the debt. And let’s take him at his word…if he does not do what he said…a one-term president!

  5. I hope Obama wins! He is a great man, a scholar and true statesmen. In fact, I would vote for Obama if I could vote in the American election. The problem with a business man like Romney is the fact that he is short sighted and focused on maximizing profits. The days of the American Capitalistic greed are over and I worry Romney would try and revert to this failed system. At least with Obama, his stances on the economy have been about economic stability over the long term. This is where the American economy is headed; long-term, economic sustainability; not free markets and maximizing profits for the short term. Just look back to the previous 7 years, how did that capitalistic greed fair? ….. Not well, in fact, look where it got everyone? A big fancy pants pre-paid venereal disease; this is essentially what it is you know? No one wants to get a venereal disease but sooner or later; if you play a risky game! You run the risk of catching something nasty!. America’s economy cannot revert to the greedy ways it once was; this will only drive further recessions and be detrimental to all countries in the world. There needs to be a solid, shift to economic sustainability for the long-term. The next business cycles may not be so nice compared to what we’ve had over the past 7 years, globally. Could get far worse! For this, I applaud you Mr. Obama, you inherited the largest shit sandwich the world has ever seen and every bodies got to take a bite! I hope you win Mr. Obama, I believe in you and everyone else needs to believe in you too!! Vote for Obama Americans!

    • “American Capitalistic greed are over” Its JUST begun! Far from over.Capitolism is here to stay…..oh I guess you know about the communistic ties too. Obama is another puppet playing the game. Corporations are on the take over of YOUR Rights and Freedoms, too bad you’ve been over fed their candy and became blinded from too much of their sugar. Everything Obama has done and will do is in the name of the elitist corporations and mongers. Yeah sure they have all the money in the world there’s nothing left to even PRINT! Everyones walking around with NOTES not Money. Big Pharma, Big Brother, CIA, trilateral commissions, WAR (Manufactured or real), Hunger, Devastation, weather control, “Global Warming Hoax”, Oil, Jobs, Disease (manufactured or real), Vaccines (Pure poison read the ingredients U could use car fluids instead), so called “Birth Control”, Sloppy Education (Oh but its fantastic its okay for america to raise the most stupid people in the world) And Consumerism but the list is endless, These are things on Obama’s List of Things to Do, oh and did I mention, Food control (Decides what you can eat) Medical Control, and depopulation to name just a few….ya lets definitely Vote for a NON BLACK MAN who is Arabic! (Doesn’t even LOOK black he looks Muslim) Obama has done shit for his country except for spew more shit with bows on it. Hes F-ing his country and everyone elses too! Not just Obama but everyone he associates himself with in secret non disclosed meetings. Ya Peace and Love alright. (Once the finish building SUPER bases around the world) Hes Very manipulative to the feeble minds…..Wakey Wakey!! Love from Canada!

  6. $2 Billion! Priorities I guess. From my perspective, the US system is not working. So many Important issues requiring a focused government response, and they spend the year(s) waging an expensive name-calling campaign of words.

  7. When it comes 2 Obama–the media seems 2 be afraid 2 do their homework? where is all the dirt behind Obamas colorfull background??? If he gets voted in again–has no business head or ecomomics intellect etc—the masses will be sorry–things can only keep go down hill with him in power!! mars.

    • His background?? Didn’t they spend millions to prevent the truth about his birthplace? Check into his Harvard records about where he was born. Interesting that they did not say Hawaii! But the media protects him like a saint.

    • Yea – since HE crashed the economy in 2008. You folks crack me up. YOu are carrying the water for the people who crashed gthe economy and got rich in the process. You didn’t but they talk you into voting for them again. We call that “Stupidity”

      • stupidity is right–if U are talking about doing away with business–etc.–it’s the rich(so called)-(-by the way–they have all earned there riches)–do U think they started with money??? Most of them had very little– it’s hard work & knowing how 2 value the dollar that counts.Then to– it’s the rich that are the ones that keep the economy going–by buiding more stores–factorys etc.—-if U take it away from them– they hAve 2 move their busineses somewhere else—–(-can’t function in a socialist economy). which–creates jobs etc.–also give 2 charities–think about Ronald Macdonald house–also many give– 2 add wings 2 hospitals etc. etc.—-if U take it away from those that prosper–the economy goes down hill– as why would U work 2 make more money–2 improve ur lot—if it’s all taken away from U–so U are all” equally” poor! NObody– then– works–they all pay more than their share–U pay according 2 ur income–think about it all–the harder U work– the more U make– the more U pay in taxes!!! By the way–socialist thinking is–” prosperity is immoral”–quoting–Jake Laten. That means U should never improve ur lot–just think about what kind of a country it would be–if we all thought that way–socialisem never lastst very long–when voted i n–as it doesn’t work–look into it!!!

  8. Obama’s previous opponents all had court-sealed divorce records leaked to the media. The last on had her e-mail account hacked. His allies included ACORN, Occupy Wall Street and the Chicago political machine. When was this “nice guy” phase you refer to?

  9. NO…he’s just the guy to promote alternate energy by giving away $500M to solar cronies so they can make nice photo ops for Biden.

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