When the history of the 2012 presidential campaign is written, three events are likely to stand out in explaining the sudden, dramatic change in the race’s narrative.
President Obama was once the prohibitive favorite to win a second term, especially after former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was battered and belittled by Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and other Republican opponents during the GOP primaries.
Democrats gleefully concluded the Republicans had given them a roadmap for taking down Romney in November, including his flip-flops on health care reform, abortion and other key issues – as well as his “job killing” tactics as co-founder of Bain Capital, the private equity investment firm.
But recent polls show the race has tightened, with Obama at best holding a modest lead. A new Gallup Daily tracking poll actually has Romney ahead of Obama, 49 percent to 45 percent, among middle-income voters and upper income Americans. And the key events – including one that takes place today in Wisconsin – have changed the complexion and dynamic of the campaign, leaving Obama more vulnerable to defeat.
May 21: A premature attack on Romney
Obama told reporters at a NATO summit in Chicago that attacks on Romney’s experience at Bain Capital were fair game and that Romney’s claims that he generated jobs as head of the private equity firm warranted serious debate. Until then, Obama had left it to his campaign aides and supporters to condemn Romney’s past “vulture capitalist” business practices of buying, downsizing and then selling companies that cost many jobs but made huge profits for his investors.
But when asked by a reporter to respond to a comment by New Jersey’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker that the campaign attacks on Romney and Bain Capital were “nauseating” – a comment Booker later walked back under pressure from the White House – Obama set aside his mantle of president and commander in chief to take on Romney directly.
"You know, he’s not going out there touting his experience in Massachusetts [as governor],” Obama said. “He’s saying, I’m a business guy and I know how to fix it, and this is his business. When you’re president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, your job is not simply to maximize profits."
Incumbent presidents typically challenge opponents by name closer to the election– and sometimes not until the run-up to the presidential debates in the fall. Instead, Obama used the occasion of a high-level meeting of NATO leaders in the Windy City to take on Romney, possibly squandering a winning strategy that will seem like old news in the fall.
Targeting Bain also poses the risk of further alienating wealthy Wall Street executives who accuse the president of engaging in class warfare and who are already highly critical of efforts to tighten financial industry regulations. Former president Bill Clinton, a surrogate for Obama, has cautioned against being overly critical of Romney’s business and political experience. While predicting an Obama victory in November, Clinton also characterized Romney as “the man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt contends the Bain attacks are resonating with voters, noting that a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that registered voters by a 2-to-1 margin viewed Bain negatively. And while Booker and Clinton may have sent mixed messages about Bain and private equity, LaBolt says there’s “a very different conversation in battleground states than there is among elites in the Northeast corridor.”
Last week, Romney rather effectively countered the Democratic attacks with a speech in Fremont, Calif., blasting the administration for funneling $535 million in federal loan guarantees to a politically well-connected solar energy company, Solyndra, that later went bankrupt.
June 1: Devastating Jobs Numbers
The Labor Department reported that businesses had created a mere 69,000 jobs last month, while the nation’s unemployment rate inched up to 8.2 percent. Obama had been insisting that the economy was on the right track, albeit not moving as quickly as he and most Americans would like. He also argued that he deserved enormous credit for leading the nation through the worst financial meltdown and recession in modern times.
But those arguments are beginning to wear thin. The latest jobs figures spooked the stock markets, economic analysts and news media. They also raised troubling questions about whether the recovery may be stalling or even moving in reverse. This was of particular concern in light of the Labor Department’s revised figures showing that employers actually added 49,000 fewer jobs than previously estimated in March and April.
After pushing through a major stimulus program, an auto industry bailout, and a series of bipartisan payroll tax and unemployment insurance provisions, Obama is left with few other instruments for improving the economy this year. The prospects are next to zero that Congress will approve any additional major stimulus program between now and the election, and the Federal Reserve has practically exhausted all of its tactics for boosting the economy.
David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign adviser, tried to stress the positive side of the employment figures, especially the number of manufacturing jobs, while blaming Republicans in Congress for blocking the president’s latest economic incentive proposals. “What was down was construction, what was down was education – the very things the president has been trying to get Congress to act on were the things that were down,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation over the weekend.
Republicans dismissed the administration’s blame shifting. “What we really have here is a deficit in leadership,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a top adviser to Romney, said on ABC’s ThisWeek. “This president came into office without any prior experience running anything. He never even ran a corner store. And I think it shows in the way that he’s handling the economy.”
June 5: The Wisconsin Recall Election
Today, Wisconsin voters decide whether to keep or fire Republican Gov. Scott Walker, in a rare recall election that has left a state balanced with proud progressives and conservatives bitterly divided.
Irate union members and Democrats stormed the Wisconsin state Capitol 14 months ago to protest the newly elected governor’s bills to strip public employees of many collective bargaining rights and require higher health care and pension co-pays in order to help balance the state budget. More than 900,000 voters signed petitions demanding the recall, and for a while, it looked as if Walker was toast.
Yet now an energized Walker – backed by a massive campaign war chest and PAC advertising, and aided by divisions within the union ranks – is slightly favored to defeat his Democratic challenger, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee. Walker defeated Barrett in the 2010 governor’s race by a margin of 50-45, and the latest polls show Walker still holding a similar lead, with virtually nobody undecided at this point.
Walker leads Barrett by 3 percentage points, 50 to 47, in a new survey of likely voters conducted by Public Policy Polling. According to PPP, Walker is winning among men, whites, seniors and residents of the Milwaukee suburbs. Barrett leads among women, minorities, young voters, and residents of Milwaukee county and greater Madison. Barrett is also ahead with independent voters 48 to 46 percent, a lead that is within the margin of error.
Mark Meckler, president of Citizens for Self Governance and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told The Fiscal Times that a Walker victory would show “that a politician who is honest with his constituents about where he stands can be elected” and would demonstrate that “government employee unions are grossly out of step with the American public.”
“Based on the upcoming Walker victory, you will see a wave of governors and municipal leaders actually digging in and dealing with the difficult fiscal issues surrounding government employee unions,” Meckler added.
The Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee have fundraised and orchestrated grassroots events to mobilize Barrett supporters. Bill Clinton flew to Wisconsin last week to campaign with Barrett. But Obama and the White House have kept their distance from the recall effort, apparently fearing Republicans could turn the election into a referendum on the president’s record.
Obama strategists see no upside to the president getting involved in a volatile recall election. “This is a gubernatorial race with a guy who was recalled and a challenger trying to get him out of office,” Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said recently this week on MSNBC. “It has nothing to do with President Obama at the top of the ticket.”
Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant, said, “It's obvious when Democrats are distancing themselves on a national level that Walker is likely to prevail. Obama left Wisconsin Democrats twisting in the wind and it is likely that many will stay home in November as payback.”
Romney won the Wisconsin GOP primary earlier this year, and is within striking distance of Obama in Wisconsin, according to The New York Times. He intends to start building a campaign operation off the robust get-out-the vote machinery assembled by Walker’s forces. Wisconsin has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988, yet the 2010 election gave the GOP control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature.
Peter D. Hart, a prominent Democratic pollster, told The Fiscal Times yesterday that the Wisconsin turnout would be an important “preview” of the intensity of Democratic and Republican support heading into the November election.
“If this race ends up as a dead-even fight, I think that’s a good sign the Democrats have done a good job in their turnout effort,” he said. “If it turns out as a large win for the governor, that’s a bad sign for the Democrats and a good sign for the Republicans in the turnout battle. And if the Democrats should win, I would consider that to be an amazing sign for the Democrats.”
Maureen Mackey contributed to this article.