There has never been much of a reservoir of respect in Barack Obama’s White House for the Republican Party. The disdain is partly the reflex of Chicago-bred operatives who found John McCain’s campaign soft and clumsy; partly the mindset of intellectual liberals who view John Boehner and Mitch McConnell as pedestrian local Civitans made good; but mostly it is the product of a worldview that sees conservatism as neither trendy nor clever, and as the fading gasp of a whiter, duller society. By all lights, Team Obama expected to dismantle Mitt Romney, who seems to them to crystallize all the inadequacies of their opposition.
So, imagine their perplexity that Romney is either slightly ahead, or tied with Obama as spring heads to summer. For all of the Obama campaign’s tendencies to discredit any polling they don’t like, the numbers tell a more or less consistent story: Gallup puts Romney’s chronically low favorable ratings at their highest point yet, about even with Obama’s; CBS/New York Times reveals that the president’s much touted embrace of same sex marriage hurts him more than it helps, and that strikingly, nearly seventy percent of the country attributes the president’s history-making on the subject to political motives. ABC/Washington Post shows that a country preoccupied with the economy believes that a Romney presidency will make it better, and that an Obama reelection will have little effect.
Even the atmospherics seem off. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising folk hero in Democratic circles and a favorite Obama surrogate, bashed the campaign’s latest foray into Bain Capital bashing and declared it about as relevant as Obama’s tortured history with Jeremiah Wright (as any decent political junkie knows, the diversion of the week was a bid by a freelancing GOP operative to get financing for an ad buy dredging up the Reverend). An Obama commencement speech at a women’s college drew sour reviews for spending too much time in campaign mode. More substantively, the European economic consensus is unraveling, which may portend dire consequences for domestic capital markets come late summer.
Betting against Obama this November is still an uphill wager. Incumbent presidents in the last 80 years have won, unless their party’s share of the electorate has shriveled to 30% (Gerald Ford), or they are facing charismatic, inspirational challengers (Reagan v. Carter, Bush 41 v. Clinton). But it is apparent that unlike his predecessors who won second terms, Obama’s approval ratings six months out are still below 50%, and the prospects of a robust economic recovery seem thin. It is just as clear that the mainstream press’s incessant cheerleading is not the decisive force it was four years ago.
So, Mitt Romney has a pathway now and it seems to have two distinct dimensions to it. The first is to drive home the notion that Obama has not been the president he promised to be. Instead of governing as a post-partisan unifier, Obama has emerged as the president who reconsolidated the liberal grip on his party. He will campaign as an unapologetic defender of expanded government and a liberal social agenda, whose sole announced aspiration for a second term is boosting taxes on the rich: arguably, in the modern era, only George McGovern and John Kerry have campaigned so emphatically from the left.
It will also not be hard for Romney to capture the reality that in most measures, the nation is more fractured and less confident of its course than seemed conceivable in the afterglow of Obama’s inauguration. In fact, if Romney is artful about it, he has the potential to make the refrain “are we more united today than we were four years ago” the contemporary version of Ronald Reagan’s both high-minded and visceral punch at Carter in 1980 (“are we better off now than four years ago”?).
Second, the message about Obama’s economic stewardship works best when it is tied to a theme that Obama is settling for economic mediocrity. The earlier Romney arguments not only exaggerated the president’s shortcomings, they seemed too tethered to a projection of gloom and decline. His campaign is slowly making its way to a more viable case that instead of being an abject failure, Obama has aimed too low—more or less conceding that slow growth, the weakest labor force since 1981, wage stagnation, and depressed home values are the new normal. It’s a stab at the transformational rhetoric of 2008 and if done right, it complements the claim that Obama’s own ideological ambitions steered him away from a laser-like focus on the economy.
To be sure, Romney will be haunted by the fact that not one of his party’s signature policy proposals enjoys significant public support—from preserving the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, to scaling back retirement security programs. Even the unpopularity of the new health care law is an unpredictable element: should the Supreme Court overturn the law in its entirety, Romney will be pressed to describe whether he would revive some of the law’s more popular features like eliminating pre-existing illness exclusions.
But the back-and-forth over ideology and policy is a mixed bag for both sides. The pivotal independent voters in the center remain ambivalent over which future would cause them more grief, Obama unleashed or Romney upending Obama’s priorities. That ambivalence and this razor-thin race are an improvement over the one-sided framework Democrats confidently expected two months ago—a resurgent, inspirational president against an overmatched, pandering, unglamorous rival. Against all odds, Romney could win this.