AND so it begins – the presidential election in earnest. Welcome to the next seven months of frivolous finger pointing, robo-calls, and daily polls. “Even now we have pundits on cable news telling us about the importance of the polls,” remarked one Republican strategist. “They’re lying.” For President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney, it’s James Bond-esque. They’ve been expecting each other.
All of Obama’s moves right now, and likely for the foreseeable future, are to showcase what’s not to like about Romney. Democrats in the Senate took a vote on a gimmicky surtax for millionaires – the so-called Buffett Rule – this week, not because it was a policy priority, but to help Obama develop his re-election narrative and to get the country discussing tax “fairness”.
But the president could have problems. George W. Bush won a tough re-election on a message of robust national security and an economy that was, to quote the president, “turning the corner”. Obama, for all of his efforts to define his opponent, still appears unsure of how to sell a comprehensive narrative of his own. Only a few months ago the president quipped that for his re-election campaign he would re-run clips from the Republican debates. He may not have been joking. With a sluggish economy, soaring prices at the pump and stubbornly high unemployment, the president is currently pointing at his opponent with one eyebrow sternly raised and asking the American people to “bear with me”. And that’s not a good enough sell.
Still, the goal of reaching the magic 270 electoral college votes looks tough for the Republicans. In 2008, Obama and the Democrats made significant inroads into traditional Republican states such as Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Missouri went down to the wire. And Democratic operatives have not been sitting on their hands for the past four years. Some of these states are unlikely to be turning red for a while. Ohio and Florida will be the main prizes, but Republicans will need more, endeavouring to make the Obama campaign uneasy in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. There will be surprises. If Republican governor Scott Walker wins his recall in Wisconsin on 5 June, buoyed conservative activists will give Romney a boost in the state.
The first week of the election was not good for Obama. Strategist Hilary Rosen’s disdainful remark that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” not only undermined Democratic claims – and months of campaign planning – that Republicans had declared a “war on women,” but her quote allowed Romney to consolidate his party’s base much quicker than even he would have expected. Defining Romney won’t win the election for Obama. Only a successful effort conveying his “vision thing” for the country will.
Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt