But Plouffe, recalling George W. Bush’s effective double-barreled attack on John Kerry as both a flip-flopping phony and a liberal extremist, maintains that the two threads will be merged into a single yarn: “When Romney tries to Etch-a-Sketch, we’re not just gonna say, ‘Oh, there goes old Mitt Romney again! Who knows where he stands?’ We’re gonna say, ‘He is once again showing he’ll say anything—he has no core.’ But we’re also gonna say, ‘We know where he stands; he’s way off to the right on abortion, contraception, immigration, and gay rights,’ and hold him to those positions.”
For Chicago, that task—“freezing him like a bug in amber at the end of the dinosaur era,” as another of the president’s people puts it—is one of the campaign’s paramount strategic imperatives. Another is continuing to remind women, Hispanics, and young voters of Obama’s fealty to them, as he’s been doing tirelessly in the past few weeks, from the campus of Barnard to the set of The View.
Those fat April poll margins won’t be easy to sustain, though—indeed, by the end of May, there were signs that Romney had narrowed all of them, albeit only slightly. According the latest NBC–Wall Street Journal survey released last week, the GOP nominee is now 15 points behind the incumbent with women, 53-38, and is lagging with Latinos by a 34-point margin, 61-27, and with young voters by 20 points, 55-35. Some of this tightening was inevitable, the result of Romney’s no longer being a punching bag for his Republican opponents. But more of it is likely attributable to the issue that voters in every demographic cohort overwhelmingly name as the seminal one—and where Obama is facing a picture not brightening nearly fast enough for his (or anyone else’s) comfort.
Three days after my lunch with Axelrod, Obama arrived in Columbus, Ohio, for a rally to kick off his general-election campaign in earnest. Two days later, his campaign put on the air in nine swing states a 60-second positive ad—backed with a massive $25 million buy of airtime—that echoed one of the two central arguments voiced by Obama in his speech. “Over and over again, [Republicans] will tell you America is down and out, and they’ll tell you who to blame, and ask if you’re better off than you were before the worst crisis in our lifetime,” the president intoned. “But you know what? The real question … is not just about how we’re doing today. It’s about how we’ll be doing tomorrow.”
With this stanza and others like it, Obama was addressing head-on the raison d’être of Romney’s campaign: the contention that you’re not better off than you were four years ago, that Obama is a nice guy in far over his head, a free-spending liberal who has squandered trillions of dollars to scant appreciable positive effect. “What do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama?” Romney asked in his own speech effectively claiming the Republican nomination. “Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you need for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump?”
Obama’s response is to provide context, reminding people of the depth of the turmoil he inherited, and ask them to focus not on the present but the future. Obama’s pollsters have reams of evidence that voters are sympathetic to the first point, and his political people repeat the Clintonian maxim that presidential elections are always more about tomorrow than yesterday.
But Obama’s plea to look forward, angel, would cut more ice if the economy would cooperate a bit more generously and consistently. The Obamans have been praying for circumstances like those that unfolded in 1983–84, in which slow but steady improvement on the jobs front would let them run an updated version of Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign. Instead what they’ve been handed is a succession of fits and starts and false dawns, in which decent jobs reports are followed by anemic ones, creating in the electorate a widespread and free-floating angst—with just a third of voters saying the economy is improving and nearly two thirds believing the country remains on the wrong track.
Considering all this, the thrust of Obama’s campaign on economic issues will be different from the approach to noneconomic ones. When it comes to the latter, the goal is to keep his lead big with, and drive turnout among, his base; when it comes to the former, the aim is to persuade the small slice of independent voters who vacillate between the parties (maybe 8-to-10 percent of the electorate) in the battleground states to side with the president. According to a recent report by the centrist group Third Way, “swing independents” see themselves as more moderate than Obama, closer ideologically to Romney, but furthest of all from non-Romney Republicans. To Bill Galston, a Brookings Institute scholar and former Clinton adviser, the implication here is obvious: “The Obama campaign should work to ensure that swing voters come to see Romney and the Republican Party as indistinguishable.”