Two difficult weeks for President Obama have shaken the overwhelming confidence of his campaign in Chicago and of Democratic leaders in Washington, and prompted a depressing realization: This is, at best, 2004, not 1996. At worst it's 1992.
Democrats had taken comfort for months in the Republican Party’s seeming inability to get behind Mitt Romney, Obama’s healthy lead in the polls, and equally healthy job growth. And for a few, fleeting, moments, Democrats thought the election might just be easy. But Republican division appears to have been merely an artifact of primary politics, and Mitt Romney has proved a consistent, if unglamorous campaigner.
And this week, amid poor economic indicators and continuing voter frustration, Democrats returned to the harsh reality that this election is going to be anything but a walk in the park.
“There was this sense maybe a month or two ago that Obama was really riding high — that he had gotten his base behind him and the economy was doing better and it had this Clinton vs. Bob Dole 1996 feeling — that he was going to cruise,” said one 2008 Obama aide who does not work for this year’s campaign. “And now it feels like it’s going to be really tough — a 2004 race.”
Indeed the campaign is shaping up to be a close-combat battle for one percent of swing voters in a few hundred precincts across three or four states.
That’s not to say the Obama campaign hasn’t been preparing for a tough fight — they have — but they’ve also adopted a confident, and at times arrogant, attitude toward their opponent.
From naming their elevators after cars (Cadillac I and Cadillac II) to private conversations with reporters, the campaign has rarely taken Romney seriously, focusing their efforts on mitigating the host of electoral wildcards like the economy.
Now, nobody’s laughing.
Moreover, a campaign that two months ago seemed infallible has proven to be very capable of making mistakes. Obama’s aides were taken aback when Vice President Joe Biden publicly backed same sex marriage — and spent a week punishing him for speaking out in the press. Long preparation for attacks on Romney’s time at Bain Capital, aimed at changing the narrative , nevertheless left them flat-footed when Republicans (and even a few Democrats) counter-attacked. Romney, who stumbled into the Republican nomination, scored his first tactical victory of the general election and further shored up the Republican base in the process.
“The attacks on Bain have the consequence of seeming to unite the party behind Romney, and that makes this attack perhaps a little clumsy,” said the former Obama aide.
Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House official and Democratic political operative, cast the past two weeks as the establishment of the “natural waterline” in the presidential race.
“The polls are reflecting where the country is — a 47-47, 48-48 country,” he said, noting the similarity to the environment George W. Bush faced for reelection. “It took Romney a while to solidify his support, but if Romney really won Iowa, won South Carolina, this is where the race would have been in February and where we’d be through the fall.”
This trajectory isn’t unfamiliar to Obama’s veteran aides. 2008, in retrospect a sweeping triumph, was at times a roller coaster and a slog, with pervasive doubts almost crippling the campaign during its lows in 2007 and a deep state of crisis enveloping the candidate when Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons became public in the spring of 2008; many supporters panicked again when Sarah Palin’s nomination briefly produced a Republican surge in the polls.
“I remember periods like this in the 2008 campaign, when it just felt like we just could not get a break,” said Michael Simon, a 2008 staffer, who added that any stress is unlikely to have invaded the Chicago headquarters beyond a few senior staffers and communicators. “There are maybe a dozen people in Chicago who worry about the macro, day-to-day issues, and the others are focused on what’s going on in the states, and doing their jobs normally.”
“They’ve had a lot of time to fine-tune the operation, but there is only so much you can do to prepare,” Simon said.
Many Democrats shrug off the bad weeks.
“[I] don't think we will have a real sense of where the electorate is until we see polling in the middle of the Summer and again at the end of the Summer when we know a much larger portion of the electorate are actually paying attention,” said former DNC Communications Director Karen Finney. “Some of the numbers we've seen in a number of recent polls suggest that while in the Acela corridor we are obsessed, most Americans are still not fully engaged in the way they will be in the fall.”
One Obama operative called Biden’s gay marriage flub “an ill-timed comment that forced the issue into public view,” but shrugged off any concern that it was indicative of any problem at the campaign. “And on Bain, I do think there's a campaign that handled it poorly — Romney's. This election is decided by people out in battleground states, not by Morning Joe viewers.”
Critics inside the party and out, however, warn that Obama has a deeper problem: He hasn’t clearly communicated a simple rationale for a second term.
“They have no clear message or overarching theme other than class warfare and attack politics,” pollster Doug Schoen told BuzzFeed. ”They don't have a vision for the second term. No clear sense as to what the Administration is offering for a second term. There is widespread dissatisfaction with both parties and both candidates in primary results [Tuesday] — and no clear idea how Obama is going to unite the county and lead us forward.”