Barack Obama's sideways slide

Obama's presidential campaign was never going to rediscover its 2008 alchemy but the past nine weeks have revealed, startlingly, that the president is no longer a very good campaigner at all.

This weekend the Obama campaign added an exclamation mark to its slogan, which is now "Forward!” It is probably too late to come up with anything more persuasive. "I guess it’s better than backward,” said Bruce Springsteen after the president asked him to write a song around the theme. "It is not much to go on.”

Obama was never going to rediscover the once-in-a-generation alchemy of 2008. Then he was young, black, exciting and not from Washington. He offered a demoralised America the chance to show the world it could renew itself. Whether or not he squeaks through next week, his most resonant change is that it is now normal to have a black president in the White House. It remains an extraordinary feat. But it has already happened.

As the incumbent, Obama could hardly have campaigned again on a theme of change (except when talking about wresting control of Capitol Hill from the Republicans). Nor, given the continued weakness of the recovery (The fragility of GDP glee, October 29), could he imitate Ronald Reagan’s "Morning in America”. All he could do was promise voters the economy would mend and convince them it would not under Mitt Romney. The rest is mood music.

Yet he could hardly have made a more uninspiring job of it. Perhaps the most startling revelation of the past nine weeks is that Obama is no longer a very good campaigner. Since governing is nowadays a permanent campaign, this does not bode well for how he would fare in a second term. Indeed, the soporific way in which he has engaged the electorate gives reasons to worry a second term would not be much different from the past two years.

First, Obama has shown little ability to sharpen his message on the economy, let alone offer an overarching vision of the future. As one commentator put it, the president is fond of "tranquillising abstractions”, which tend to separate him from listeners. After Bill Clinton outshone him at the convention in Charlotte, Obama labelled his predecessor his "explainer-in-chief”. He continues to have a hard time talking about the economy in concrete terms.

This is of real concern given the looming fiscal cliff. Many Democrats, including Obama, believe his re-election would wipe the slate clean and enable him to strike a grand bargain with the Republicans – based on something similar to the Simpson-Bowles plan entailing a roughly three-to-one ratio of federal spending cuts to tax increases. Obama has several times now reassured voters the cliff will easily be avoided since the Republican fever will break after the election.

Yet the president does not explain why Republicans would grasp the logic of compromise, when they refused to do so at the peak of his power in 2009. In spite of coming fresh from a landslide, he persuaded just three to vote for his stimulus. The last time any Republican in either chamber of Congress voted for a tax increase was in 1990. It is odd to expect that would suddenly change in the event of a narrow Obama victory in which the economy had been his weakest suit.

Second, Obama’s people skills are not improving. Democratic candidates in swing states complain that the Obama campaign almost never permits local candidates to precede him on the hustings – a favour routinely dispensed by George W Bush and Bill Clinton. The Obama campaign has also tried to stop Democratic officials in swing states from talking to the media without their permission. "The campaign wants to control everything we say but refuses to do anything for us in return,” said the veteran chairman of one of Ohio’s most contested swing counties. "It is a very selfish approach.”

Most people in Washington assume that it was only Republican intransigence that scuppered a bargain during the debt ceiling drama of August 2011. But Obama also misplayed his hand. The president made almost no effort to build trust with his Republican interlocutors – and very little to nurture ties with members of his own party. As Neera Tanden, head of the Centre for American Progress, a liberal think-tank, said last week: "It’s stunning that he is in politics because he really doesn’t like people.” Tanden later said she deeply regretted her remarks.

Finally, America’s worsening polarisation has forced the Obama campaign to pursue a rainbow strategy focused on specific groups, such as unmarried women, Hispanics and college students. It was Obama’s promise to transcend "blue state/red state” divisions in 2004 that shot him to prominence. The US is much more divided now than it was then. This can hardly be blamed on Obama. But it augurs badly that this election is likely to show the most pronounced racial sorting in recent US history. Almost two-thirds of blue-collar whites say they will vote for Romney while up to three-quarters of Latinos and more than 90 per cent of African Americans will go for Obama.

Many whites voting against Obama passionately believe he is un-American. They dominate the Republican base and will be ready to punish any congressman who cuts a deal with Obama, which would target anyone who agreed to any kind of tax increase. A disturbingly high number still refuse to believe Obama was born in America. As a blue-collar entertainer himself, Springsteen ought to change tempo the next time he does an Obama event. Now is the time to sing "Born in the USA”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.

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