One of the games political journalists love to play is comparing every election cycle to one in the past. Not only is it fun, but there is enough consistency and cyclicality in American politics that it often yields worthwhile insights. That being the case, my view is that the 2012 election is starting to look a lot like the one in 1992.
The thing that strikes me most about the two elections is the intensity of the incumbent president’s desire for reelection. It’s not discussed too openly, but a number of Democrats have expressed concern that Barack Obama doesn’t look very much like he cares about winning. This was the case with George H.W. Bush in 1992 as well.
At the time, I was a political appointee at the Treasury Department and my job depended on Bush getting reelected, so I paid very close attention to Bush’s campaign strategy and operation. The thing that struck me was how little intensity there was to it. It was said that his campaign staff worked regular business hours, going home at 5:00 pm daily. The problem was so severe that some of Bush’s people were concerned that there was something in the White House water system affecting his thyroid, which made him lethargic and lackadaisical about getting reelected.
Obviously, we are not far enough along in the 2012 campaign to say that Obama is following in Bush’s path. But there are disturbing signs that Obama seems less than fully engaged in his own reelection. For example, his fundraising thus far is lagging his 2008 pace; he recently installed a nonpolitical technocrat, Jacob Lew, as White House chief of staff; and he steadfastly refuses to embrace the sort of populism that the Democratic Party base craves.
Indeed, throughout his presidency, Obama seems not to have been very “political” in the sense of trying to maximize his popularity. In the words of Politico’s Roger Simon, this is the formula he should have been following from day one:
You have to stay on message, follow the polls, listen to your advisers (who are writing
the message and taking the polls) and realize that when it comes to doing what is right
versus doing what is expedient, you do what is expedient so that you can get reelected
and do what is right in the second term. If at all possible. And it will help your legacy.
And not endanger the election of others in your party. And not hurt the brand. Or upset
people too much.
This is clearly not the way Obama operates.
Robert Novak wrote a long article for the Washington Post indicting Bush for not giving a damn whether he won the election or not.
On August 16, 1992, the late conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote a long article for the Washington Post indicting Bush for not giving a damn whether he won the election or not. Among Novak’s complaints: Bush refused to accept that it was a mistake for him to have raised taxes in the 1990 budget deal, his insistence that his campaign not even gear up until after the Republican convention, his inattention to domestic policy, his lack of embrace for Ronald Reagan and his philosophy, and numerous other substantive and political errors.
I remember complaining one day about the fact that Bill Clinton and Ross Perot both had campaign books on the best seller list, with detailed economic and budget plans. Where was the Bush book laying out his economic program? Eventually there was one, but rather than being published by a commercial publisher and distributed through book stores, the Bush book was published by the campaign, didn’t come out until well after Labor Day, and was so poorly distributed that I was never able to obtain a printed copy for myself.
Years later, I was making this point to one of Bush’s speechwriters, Andy Ferguson. I asked, rhetorically, what happened to all the Bush policy books? Somewhat sheepishly, he told me that the day after the election a truck pulled up to the White House and dropped off box after box of them, which had never been distributed when it might have done some good. This always seemed to me to be the perfect metaphor for the whole Bush campaign.
Some would argue that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are actually doing Obama’s dirty work for him by savaging presumptive nominee Mitt Romney.
Perhaps I am reading too much into such signs. There’s still plenty of time for fundraising and no one doubts that Obama will be able to easily raise enough to be competitive with his Republican opponent. Lew is by all accounts a good manager, well versed in the economic and budget issues that will likely dominate the campaign. And with all of the Republican candidates running to the extreme right, Obama’s center-left position is not a bad place to be. Moreover, one can argue that since he lacks a primary opponent and his potential general election opponents are busy attacking each other, letting them chew each other up is his optimal strategy.
Some would argue that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are actually doing Obama’s dirty work for him by savaging presumptive nominee Mitt Romney for destroying private sector jobs during his years at Bain Capital. /node/53957
Still, I have this nagging feeling that I’ve seen this before in 1992. There just doesn’t seem to be much energy coming out of the White House; certainly far less than was evident in 1996 and 2004. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were far more focused on getting reelected than Obama seems to be. They acted as if victory by the other side would have meant Armageddon and they impressed this belief on their staff and their party every single day. I don’t see Obama acting that way at all.
Of course, if you ask political scientists, they will say that almost nothing a president does personally really matters for his reelection; it’s all about the economy. If it’s good, he wins; if it’s bad, he loses. But this is just another parallel between 1992 and 2012. In each case, the economy was getting better, but too slowly to help on Election Day.