The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The New Republic: Obama “Close to Carter Territory”

How much trouble is President Obama’s re-election campaign in? After watching and then re-reading the President’s convention speech, a writer for the (liberal) New Republic has uttered the most dreaded name in the Democratic lexicon: Carter.

The speech did not exactly thrill TNR’s Timothy Noah:

Watching President Obama give his nomination speech last night, it occurred to me for the first time that he might actually lose.

Rereading the speech this morning, I find that (as Mark Twain once said about Wagner) it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. It lacked poetry, but it managed a reasonable balance between acknowledging that the economy stinks, asserting that we’re on the right track, and pointing out that the Romney presidency would make things worse for everyone but the rich. But the speech still possessed several glaring faults.

So where are we now?

We’re dangerously close to Jimmy Carter territory here. First, there’s the boast (“You elected me to tell you the truth”) disguised as an expression of humility (“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy”). Later, I actually winced when Obama humblebragged, “And while I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’” Just because our greatest president was a bit depressive, that doesn’t mean we want the present one to lacerate himself over his failures, and we certainly don’t want to hear him tell us about it.

President Obama is not in immediate danger of retracing Jimmy Carter’s career trajectory. The polls show a still-developing post-convention bounce that has restored the narrow lead he has held for several months. And the Romney camp cannot be indifferent to the reality that even at the apogee of his own small bounce, Governor Romney never managed more than a tie in the RCP average. With the polls in Ohio and other key swing states still pointing toward an Obama win, the President seems to be a relatively strong position and the dynamics of the race would have to change to bring moving vans to Pennsylvania Avenue come January 20.

But signs that the Obama magic is wearing off and that journals who used to gush are now beginning to see what critics saw in him from the beginning (inexperienced narcissistic windbag is how people unimpressed by the oratory used to describe him) do not bode well. There are eight weeks of campaigning still to come, and the Romney camp will be doing everything possible to push the disenchantment meme.

They will need to do that. In our view, the jobs numbers pose less of a threat to Democratic president than they would to a Republican. Unemployment is heavily concentrated among people who are not very likely to vote for a Republican no matter what the economy is doing: unemployment is heavily concentrated among African Americans, Hispanics and the young. Those groups aren’t likely to vote Republican and are less likely than the general population to blame their problems on a Democratic president. The Obama campaign may have to work a little harder to gin up the turnout among these groups than it would in better times, but that is the kind of challenge the Democrats can handle.

But if anything undercuts President Obama’s ability to influence voters by making speeches, his campaign is in much deeper trouble. Oratory was always the heart of Obama’s political strength. The deep, wise voice booming from that slender young and even boyish speaker inspired millions of people. But unless you believe that Obamacare is a historic accomplishment — and whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, most Americans don’t see it that way — it’s hard to make the case that our current president’s deeds live up to his lofty, soaring words.

An effective Republican attack along these lines would do more than blunt the edge of Obama’s appeal. It would turn his greatest political strength into a source of weakness: the more eloquently he spoke the more vulnerable he would be to the contrast between soaring words and mingy deeds. Each inspiring speech would provide footage for yet another ad pointing out the contrast with the plodding record.

Our political campaigns are getting more Clausewitzian of late: candidates plan their attacks against the opponent’s center of gravity. This summer the Obama campaign went for Governor Romney’s business record, doing their best (and their best was pretty good) to turn his greatest potential strength into a source of weakness. This fall we could see the Romney campaign return the favor: attempting to convert the President’s speech making abilities into a liability by playing on what they see as the chasm between rhetoric and achievement.

Jimmy Carter was still the favorite at this point in the 1980 electoral cycle. His political ghost will be stalking the White House for a few more weeks — even as the shadows of John Kerry (a rich flip flopper who failed to unseat a weak president) and Bob Dole (around whom Bill Clinton ran rings in 1996) loom over Mitt Romney.

Published on September 9, 2012 10:00 am