If Obama loses…
By: Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman
November 5, 2012 04:39 AM EST
A defeat for Barack Obama on Tuesday would be no ordinary loss for Democrats.
It would be a traumatic experience: the death of the dream of liberal realignment embodied in Obama’s insurgent 2008 campaign. And it would be all the more distressing to Democrats because so many of them fervently believe they will win tomorrow.Unlike Republicans, many of whom have no particular love for their nominee, Democrats admire and sympathize with the president, understanding he came into office at a difficult time. If Obama were to lose, Democrats would suddenly be leaderless for the first time in half a decade and would be forced to confront agonizing questions about the viability of their party’s agenda — health care reform, most of all.
Here’s POLITICO’s preview of how Democrats would try to explain an Obama defeat — including some of the foreseeable arguments and spin:
Obama threw it away in Denver
At the end of September, Obama led his opponent in essentially all credible national and swing-state polling, Mitt Romney’s personal favorability was stuck underwater and the former Massachusetts governor was caught in a whirlpool of controversy around the “47 percent” tape.And then the first debate happened.
With a strangely passive debate performance, making no mention of the “47 percent” video and even suggesting he and Romney agreed on the the future of Social Security, Obama gave the Republican a massive new opening in the 2012 campaign. Romney’s swing-state numbers leaped upward, his personal favorability surged and in national Pew polling he went from a 8-point deficit to a 4-point lead over Obama.
If Obama loses, who's to blame?
If Romney emerges the victor on Tuesday night, some percentage of Democrats will say that the reason is really very simple: Obama self-immolated on a single night at the University of Denver. Had the president been the fierce competitor that night that he was in the two successive debates, he could have ended the race on Oct. 3. Instead, Obama barely showed up.
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The Obama campaign doesn’t buy this read on the race. It has argued in recent weeks that the movement in polls following the first debate was just a matter of Republican-leaning swing voters coming home to Romney. Those voters, they say, would ultimately have voted for Romney anyway.
But it’s impossible to prove that hypothetical. All we know for sure is that Obama was securely in the lead before the debate and on the defensive afterwards.
The Bush economy killed him
The president has reminded the nation repeatedly during 2012 that the economic climate was horrendous when he arrived in the White House, after the 2008 housing meltdown and the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. Some Democrats will certainly call a Romney victory just one more consequence of that crisis.
And there is no question the president took charge during very difficult times, as the country entered a long and painful recession. Obama has pointed to signs of life in the economy — an incrementally dipping unemployment rate, a revived auto sector — to argue that his policies have been effective, if not as robust as some voters would like.
Former President Bill Clinton bolstered Obama’s case at the Democratic National Convention, saying that no one — not Clinton and not any previous president — could have fixed all that ailed the nation in four years. Obama adviser David Axelrod has long pointed to George W. Bush’s policies to explain the bulk of Obama’s struggles, and the Obama campaign has hung Bush around Romney’s neck for months (an anchor Romney has struggled to jettison).
But Republicans argue in response that Obama had four years of his own to change course, and they have a point. Whether Obama’s own accomplishments — the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act in particular — were ultimately helpful or hurtful, there is room for criticism of Obama’s economic agenda over the last four years.
That won’t stop Democrats from arguing, however, that the damage Bush did to the economy was so deep, so lasting and so insurmountable that perhaps nothing at all could have saved Obama politically.
It was the second-term vision thing
Obama and his allies did a splendid job of tearing down Romney throughout the spring and summer. What the president hasn’t done nearly as effectively is lay out an inspiring agenda for the next four years.
The closest Obama came to detailing his second-term plan was in an off-record conversation with the editors of the Des Moines Register — an interview the White House subsequently released to the public. In it, Obama said over the next four years, he hoped to cut a big debt-reduction deal and pass immigration and education reform.
But Obama hasn’t been so specific or assertive on the campaign trail, touting the economic progress the country has made but giving voters little in the way of specific proposals to energize a stalled job market. Part of that is because Democrats are authentically optimistic that things are already on the right track and job creation will pick up naturally in the next four years anyway.
But another part of the problem is that Obama’s team expected the country to bounce back from the 2008 meltdown far faster than this. Since the V-shaped recession they anticipated failed to materialize, Obama has often seemed at a loss for new ideas and arguments about improving the economy.
Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg — who have authored several memos needling the Obama team in 2012 — wrote a missive to the Obama campaign urging a more forward-leaning message for the president to stump on.
“To come back strong, the president must address future policy choices in a much bolder way,” the memo said, “and he must make this election about choosing a country that stands up for and elevates the 47 percent versus a country that tells its seniors, veterans, the working poor, the disabled, and, yes, the struggling middle class: ‘You are on your own.’”
Citizens United, the super PACs and the Koch Brothers did it
Pick practically any day in calendar year 2012, and odds are you can find a prominent Democrat lamenting the flood of outside money into the presidential campaign. And into Senate campaigns. And into House campaigns.
The 2012 elections have indeed been preposterously expensive. In October alone, outside groups disclosed over half a billion dollars in independent expenditures. Republicans have led the way, with American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future spending over $170 million together last month, according to an analysis by POLITICO’s Dave Levinthal.
If the president doesn’t get reelected, one of the most predictable Democratic excuses will be that all that money simply overwhelmed him.
The trouble with that argument is that Obama and his outside-group allies haven’t been slouches, either. While Democrats came late to the super PAC game, three such groups — Priorities USA Action, Majority PAC and House Majority PAC — spent $75.5 million in October. Obama and Romney have raised over a billion dollars each for their campaigns and national party committees.
And while Democrats still bemoan outside money, Priorities USA was the chief purveyor of the one of the sharpest and most effective attacks against Romney, turning his background at Bain Capital into a negative and leaving a permanent negative mark on his poll numbers.
And for all the money Obama’s foes have raised, the Wesleyan Media Project reported last week that pro-Obama ads have actually outnumbered pro-Romney ads by nearly 50,000 nationwide.
If the avalanche of spending in 2012 has had an impact on the presidential contest, it has likely been to blunt Obama’s natural strengths as an incumbent, more than to give Romney some kind of new advantage.
He lost for a noble cause: national health care
The Affordable Care Act was an albatross for the president for much of the last two years, even as internal polling on both sides shows it has gained popularity.
It was the defining policy initiative of the president’s term, but the process of enacting it wasn’t pretty. Republicans picked apart the law in the 2010 campaigns, using Nancy Pelosi’s infamous line — that Congress had to pass the law so that voters could find out what was in it — as a symbol of a messy and backroom legislative process. Members of the president’s liberal coalition, meanwhile, resented both the secretive negotiations and the lack of a single-payer option in its final version.
On the list of reasons why Democrats lost their sizable House majority in 2010, the law known as “Obamacare” ranks high.
In 2012, Republicans have continued to pummel the health care law — even with Romney, who passed a similar law as governor of Massachusetts, running as Obama’s opponent (Romney has said he would seek to repeal the law and issue waivers to states that don’t want to implement it). Lawmakers who voted for the ACA still hold it at arm’s length and few red-state Democrats have campaigned with the president.
In other words, Obama achieved one of the Democratic Party’s longest-standing policy objectives, but he paid a dramatic price for it.
Obama’s aides argue this was a worthwhile goal for the country, and wave off questions about the price tag, politics and legislative mechanics. Over the long run, they say, the country will embrace the law and appreciate what Obama achieved by signing it. But the cost of passing the law may look different if a President Romney guts it upon taking office.
It all comes back to race
Race has been a surprisingly little-discussed topic — at least among politicians, in public — during the term of the first African-American president in American history. But Obama’s race has hovered over the politics of the last four years, in ways many on the left might point to in explaining his defeat.
Over the summer, Democrats were livid over a series of Romney campaign commercials attacking an Obama administrative decision related to work requirements in the 1996 Clinton welfare reforms. Romney’s ads accused Obama of “gutting” welfare reform — a charge that wasn’t accurate, and which many Democrats argued played into lingering anxiety about Obama among working-class white voters. Few party leaders said so publicly, but in private they worried it would have an impact.
It’s with those voters that Obama has struggled most in the polls. He trails among whites nationwide and is losing by titanic margins in the South. Ohio, where Obama’s auto bailout is popular, is a notable exception as far as white support for Obama is concerned.
Obama’s race may not have hobbled him in the 2008 campaign, but if he cannot win another term, some in his party may at least partially blame it on once-dormant white resistance to the idea of a black president.
The president’s advisers believe race was a subtle issue throughout Obama’s term in office, despite his relatively strong performance with whites in 2008. But Obama and his team have mainly sought to avoid discussions of race since the 2008 campaign, believing it’s a losing proposition for them.
Obama has only engaged in race-related conversations on rare occasions. After criticizing Cambridge, Mass., police officers for having arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., the prominent black professor, in his own home, Obama has typically steered clear of such controversies. Earlier this year, he spoke out on the shooting of a black teen, Trayvon Martin, in Florida. But he has also emphasized that he isn’t — as he told an African-American media outlet this year — “the president of black America.”