In last week's column, I wrote that the Obama campaign woes in May were mainly the result of circumstance. Long-planned strategies failed to catch fire, especially the campaign's attack on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, largely because of ties that Team Obama and the president himself have to the private equity industry — not to mention the fact that Obama's own record on public equity investment include tens of thousands of layoffs and business closures. And Team Obama's "Life of Julia" looked like a relatively rare moment of tone-deafness, turning off the single women that Obama needs to balance out a significant weakness among men and married women. The necessity of defending a dubious economic record while the economy takes a turn for the worse would be difficult for even the most adept strategists — and even for a president with the residual personal favorability of Barack Obama.
But today, it's clear that Obama's problem goes far beyond having been dealt a tough hand. Two epic fumbles in two days show that the campaign itself has a competence issue that goes beyond the difficulties of finding a coherent message in a crisis. With voters watching jobs numbers and economic indicators start to flash red, the competence factor might well come into play in this election.
It looks as if the president's re-election campaign is being run by Inspector Clouseau.
Last Thursday, the Obama campaign planned to roll out its next wave of attack ads against Romney, this time about his record as governor, with a press conference from the Massachusetts capital building in Boston. The new campaign effort would focus on issues that had Republicans skittish about Romney in the primary, such as his Massachusetts health-care reform, and the arguably modest record of job growth during his tenure. Obama's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, organized and headlined the presser, and invited CNN to have a live feed of the event — a decision Axelrod would live to regret.
Word began to leak out about the Thursday morning event on Wednesday evening, and that was apparently all the Romney campaign needed. They quickly organized supporters into a vocal protest — much like Obama supporters have staged at Romney's events — and managed to shout down Axelrod and force him to address the protests. CNN anchor Suzanne Malveaux commented while the network showed Axelrod's rattled performance, "Clearly, this is not what they were expecting."
At nearly the same time, Romney staged his own surprise press conference 3,000 miles to the west. While Romney's supporters chanted "Solyndra" at Axelrod's event, Romney took the journalists covering his campaign to Solyndra's headquarters, attacking Obama's most famous green-tech stimulus failure and his public equity record in general. The Obama campaign got caught flat-footed, while Team Romney cut an ad from the event that they released the next morning after a highly disappointing jobs report showed unemployment ticking back up for the first time in a year.
That brings us to the bigger debacle, one that the Romney campaign didn't have a hand in at all. With voters and the media focusing on the economy and jobs after a weak April jobs report, one might have expected the Obama campaign to prepare for a worse report in May. Economic indicators had begun to slide, after all, and uneasiness over the Euro crisis across the Atlantic was widely expected to provoke caution in U.S. investors. Jobs reports get released on a schedule that allow the national media to prepare for analysis, and few jobs reports get the kind of attention that everyone knew would come for the May figures. Plus, jobs reports always come on the first Friday of the month at 8:30 a.m. ET, which means that any significant news would dictate the media cycle all weekend long.
Did the Obama campaign prepare for it? Hardly. President Obama flew to Minnesota in the morning to make an appearance at a Honeywell plant, but the rest of his schedule that day focused on fundraising. In fact, the campaign scheduled six fundraising events instead of leaving the calendar open for Obama to shift immediately to jobs-related venues or events. All of the fundraisers were high-priced events, with tickets ranging from $2,500 to $50,000 a pop. Attending lavish parties isn't exactly the way to position an incumbent president as in touch with the pain of the American electorate.
And it got worse. That very day, the Obama campaign released a new video spot featuring Vogue editor Anna Wintour promoting a new raffle for a spot at a future fundraising party cohosted by Wintour and actress Sarah Jessica Parker. Wintour was widely rumored to be the inspiration for the sadistic boss in The Devil Wears Prada, written by former personal assistant Lauren Weisberger, and is sometimes called "Nuclear Wintour" for her, er, people skills. Even among fashion elites, Wintour is infamous for being an elitist.
At a moment when ordinary Americans worried about the impact of a declining economy on their lives, the Obama campaign made Wintour its national spokesperson. Could the raffle not have waited a few days in order to give Obama a chance to focus on a response to the jobs report everyone knew was coming? How could the Obama administration, with its access to economic data, not see the trainwreck that was coming in that June 1 report and fail to warn the campaign to change its plans for the video's release? How, in fact, could the campaign have scheduled six fundraisers on the same day that the BLS released its jobs report at all?
Juan Williams summed up the debacle for Fox News Sunday. "That looks like a parody," Williams said, laughing along with host Chris Wallace at the Wintour spot. "It looked like the Romney campaign planted Dr. Evil in the house of Obama and he said, 'You know on the day the grim job numbers come out let's have someone who reeks of ornamental excess announce that the peasants can have a place at the table.' It's just unbelievable."
Romney doesn't need to plant Dr. Evil on Team Obama. Right now, it looks as if the president's re-election campaign is being run by Inspector Clouseau. If Team O believes that a winning campaign strategy will be to have the notorious "devil" of a boss act as their surrogate as job creation grinds to a halt, then Romney will only need to demonstrate calm competence over the next five months to win this national election.