There is every reason to be deeply skeptical of President Obama’s prospects in November.
Republicans feel an understandable anxiety about Mr. Obama’s coming campaign: It will be all slice and dice, divide and conquer, break the country into little pieces and pick up as many as you can. He’ll try to pick up college students one day and solidify environmentalist support the next, he’ll valorize this group and demonize the other. He means to gather in and hold onto all the pieces he needs, and turn them into a jagged, jangly coalition that will win it for him in November and not begin making individual demands until December.
But it still matters that the president doesn’t have a coherent agenda, or a political philosophy that is really clear to people. To the extent he has a philosophy it, tends to pop up furtively in stray comments and then go away. This is to a unique degree a presidency of inference, its overall meaning never vividly declared. In some eras, that may be a plus. In this one?
Republicans are worried about the power of incumbency, and it is a real power. Presidents command the airwaves, as they used to say. If they want to make something the focus of national discussion, they usually can, at least for a while. And this president is always out there, talking. But—and forgive me, because what I’m about to say is rude—has anyone noticed how boring he is? Plonking platitude after plonking platitude. To see Mr. Obama on the stump is to see a man at the podium who’s constantly dribbling away the punch line. He looks pleasant but lacks joy; he’s cool but lacks vigor. A lot of what he says could have been said by a president 12 or 20 years ago, little is anchored to the moment. As he makes his points he often seems distracted, as if he’s holding a private conversation in his head, noticing crowd size, for instance, and wishing the front row would start fainting again, like they used to.
I listen to him closely and find myself daydreaming: This is the best-tailored president since JFK. His suits, shirts and ties are beautifully cut from fine material. This is an elegant man. But I shouldn’t be thinking about that, I should be thinking about what a powerful case he’s making for his leadership. I’m not because he’s not.
It is still so surprising that a person who seems bored by politicking has risen to the highest political office in the land. Politics is a fleshly profession, it’s all hugging, kissing, arm twisting, shaking hands. It involves contact. When you see politicians on C-Span, in the well of the House or the Senate after a vote, they’re always touching each other’s arms and shoulders. They touch each other more than actors! Bill Clinton was fleshly, and LBJ. How odd to have a Democratic president who doesn’t seem to like humans all that much.
He’s raised a lot of money, or so we keep reading. He has a sophisticated, wired, brilliant computer operation—they know how to mine Internet data and get the addresses of people who’ve never been reached by a campaign before, and how to approach them in a friendly and personal way. This is thought to be a secret weapon. I’m not so sure. All they can approach their new friends with is arguments that have already been made, the same attacks and assertions. If you have fabulous new ways to reach everyone in the world but you have little to say, does that really help you?
A while back I talked to a young man who was developing a wonderful thing for a website, a kind of constant live TV show with anyone anywhere able to join in and share opinions live, on the screen. You’re on your iPad in the train station, you log on and start talking. He was so excited at the technology, which seemed impressive. But I thought: Why do you think people will say anything interesting or important?
This is the problem of the world now: Big mic, no message. If you have nothing to say, does it matter that you have endless venues in which to say it?
The old Washington gossip was that the Obama campaign was too confident, now it is that they are nervous. The second seems true if you go by their inability, months after it was clear Mitt Romney would be running against them, to find and fix on a clear line of attack. Months ago he was the out-of-touch corporate raider. Then he was a flip-flopping weasel. They momentarily shifted to right-wing extremist. This week he seems to be a Bushite billionaire.
Will all this work? When you look at Romney you see a wealthy businessman, a Mormon of inherently moderate instinct, a person who is conservative in his personal sphere but who lives and hopes to rise in a world he well knows is not quite so tidy. He doesn’t seem extreme.
It’s interesting that the Obama campaign isn’t using what incumbent presidents always sooner or later use, either straight out or subliminally. And that is “You know me. I’ve been president for almost four years, you don’t know that other guy. In a high-stakes world do you really want someone new?”
You know why they’re not using “You know me”? Because we know him, and it’s not a plus.
Here’s one reason why.
There is a growing air of incompetence around Mr. Obama’s White House. It was seen again this week in Supreme Court arguments over the administration’s challenge to Arizona’s attempted crackdown on illegal immigration. As Greg Stohr of Bloomberg News wrote, the court seemed to be disagreeing with the administration’s understanding of federal power: “Solicitor General Donald Verrilli . . . met resistance across ideological lines. . . . Even Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s only Hispanic and an Obama appointee, told Verrilli his argument is ‘not selling very well.’ “ This follows last month’s embarrassing showing over the constitutionality of parts of ObamaCare.
All of this looks so bush league, so scattered. Add it to the General Services Administration, to Solyndra, to the other scandals, and you get a growing sense that no one’s in charge, that the administration is paying attention to politics but not day-to-day governance. The two most public cabinet members are Eric Holder at Justice and Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security. He is overseeing the administration’s Supreme Court cases. She is in charge of being unmoved by the daily stories of Transportation Security Administration incompetence and even cruelty at our airports. Those incidents and stories continue, but if you go to the Homeland Security website, there is no mention of them. It’s as if they don’t even exist.
Maybe the 2012 election is simpler than we think.
It will be about Mr. Obama.
Did you like the past four years? Good, you can get four more.
Do the president and his people strike you as competent? If so, you can renew his contract, and he will renew theirs.
If you don’t want to rehire him, you will look at the other guy. Does he strike you as credible, a possible president? Then you can hire him.
Republicans should cheer up.