During a political campaign, the most effective tool a candidate can hand over to their opponents is a video clip reinforcing the key criticism opponents have assigned to them.
In 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign got a lot of mileage out of airing a clip of opponent John Kerry stating that he voted for a bill before voting against it. It turned up in a seemingly endless barrage of campaign commercials, and it was an effective attack on Kerry because it promoted the already popular narrative that he was a flip-flopper.
To a lesser extent, John McCain gave a gift to the Barack Obama in 2008 when he stated at the beginning of the economic meltdown, “I have a great belief that the fundamentals of the economy are very strong.” As the stock-market continued to spiral downward and financial institutions were falling to their knees, it played into the narrative created by the Obama campaign that McCain was detached and ill-prepared for the realities surrounding him. The quote turned up in numerous Obama ads and it certainly did some damage to McCain.
In an interview yesterday with ABC News’ Diana Sawyer, President Obama hand-delivered what should be one of the most played sound-bites in anti-Obama commercials from now until the election… That is, if the Republicans are smart.
When Sawyer asked Obama if he had second-guessed any of his decisions during his first three years in office, he answered, “I second-guess constantly”. That was the quote that ABC News used as the headline, but it’s not the one that’s significant. The next sentence from Obama, as The Drudge Report perceptively highlighted, is incredibly significant: “I make a mistake every hour, every day.”
This should have, as Chris Matthews puts it, sent a thrill up the leg of every Republican strategist in the country. It’s enormously meaningful because it goes right to the heart of the precise narrative that Republicans should be focusing on in this election: Obama’s Incompetence.
Obama’s obvious Achilles’ heel is his handling of the economy. The way I see it, the Republican party has three broad angles available for attacking him on it.
The first one would be corruption and crony capitalism. We’ve already seen 527 organizations going after Obama on the air over his administration’s dealing with Solyndra, the solar energy company they poured a ton of taxpayer’s money into despite knowing that it was doomed to fail. The video clip of President Obama making a stump-speech from the Solyndra plant and saying, “The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra” certainly leaves a lasting impression. However, I tend to think that this narrative might be a little over the heads of many voters. While it’s absolutely a legitimate criticism, the reality is that the Republicans are going to have a hard time portraying Obama as a corrupt thug who’s working shady deals out of dimly lit parking garages. Obama is personally likeable enough that the message just won’t resonate with people who don’t follow the news as closely as others. The Democrats tried this same tactic during George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 by constantly harping on Halliburton and Vice President Cheney’s conflict of interest with the company. It didn’t work, and the reason it failed wasn’t because people saw through it. It’s because they didn’t get it. The same thing would happen in 2012 if Republicans put too much stock in the crony capitalism stuff.
The second angle would be to go the route of painting Obama as a socialist or an ideological crusader who’s purposely pursuing America’s decline for the sake of social justice. This would be a HUGE mistake. Although there’s certainly plenty of evidence to support the accusation, it would come across like a harebrained conspiracy theory to a good portion of voters. Barack Obama is no Howard Dean. Regardless of his radical policies (and they are radical in my opinion), he doesn’t strike anyone as a radical person. This sort of stuff should be left up to the Sean Hannitys of the world to pursue. If I see a single anti-Obama commercial mention the name Saul Alinsky, it will be hard not to throw a chair through my television screen. That strategy is a guaranteed loser.
The third choice, and by far the best one in my opinion, is to show voters that the president simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. We’ve seen Mitt Romney employ this tactic regularly when he states that the president is a “nice guy” but is “in way over his head.” It’s the easiest and most effective case to make. Most Americans want to like Obama, so demonizing him is a tough thing to do. It was Hillary Clinton herself that said many times during the 2008 campaign that our country couldn’t afford a president who required “on-the-job training”. There is a plethora of examples Republicans have at their disposal for demonstrating simply and convincingly that what we’ve been seeing over the past three years is exactly that: On-the-job training. The student is failing in a big way, and it’s time for the parents to stop paying the tuition.
Now, with the Diane Sawyer interview, the president has essentially established the legitimacy of that portrayal by admitting that he’s not only constantly second-guessing himself, but that he is routinely making mistakes. I am absolutely convinced that this is not a trait that Americans want in their president. They don’t want someone who is chronically unsure of what he’s doing, and is using a trial and error approach in making some the most important decisions not just for our country but also the world.
What makes this clip even more relevant is that his words were absolutely not taken out of context. In an environment where quotes are so often presented to be misleading for the sole purpose of afflicting a blow, Obama was indeed speaking of his job performance as the President of The United States – not helping his kids with their homework or playing Pictionary.
Imagine that clip as the grand finale in a montage of deprecating statements including, “Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected”, the proclamation of “Recovery Summer”, the promotion of the Chevy Volt, his confession to Barbara Walters that there’s a laziness in him, and any number of others. It presents a very coherent message that our president his winged his presidency from day one, and our children and grandchildren are paying for his haphazard ventures… literally!
Christmas came very early this year for the Republicans. I hope they don’t leave the present under the tree.