We have seen the opening salvos of the 2012 presidential election, and the results have been stunning for Obama — and not in a good way. The vaunted Obama campaign organization that put together a miracle win in the 2008 Democratic primaries and then easily beat the Republican nominee has stumbled out of the gate. What happened? 2012 Barack Obama has to overcome 2008 Barack Obama, and it may prove an impossible task.
In 2008, Obama came almost out of nowhere to overturn the established order — first in the Democratic primary, and then in the general election. When he first announced his intention to run in January 2007, most people assumed Obama wanted to gain visibility and organization for a later presidential run. At that early stage, a year before the Iowa caucuses, most believed that Democrats would turn to Hillary Clinton as a salve for eight years of George W. Bush.
The most significant competition, at least on paper, to the former first lady came from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who had the widest breadth of experience of any candidate in either party. Richardson had the executive experience both Clinton and Obama lacked, along with formal diplomatic experience and a track record on the legislative side as well. However, he turned out to be a mediocre campaigner and never threatened in the polls.
The 2012 Obama campaign has become the antithesis of the 2008 campaign.
Then there was John Edwards, who had performed well as John Kerry's running mate in the close but unsuccessful race in 2004, although he still only had a single term as senator on his resume. In 2008, the soon-to-be-disgraced Democrat ran as both a populist and as the battle-tested campaigner who could beat Republicans in an open election — and presented a strong challenge to Clinton.
Clinton had just started her second term as a senator from New York, while Obama had just finished his second year in national office. Clinton chose to emphasize her leadership experience, claiming that her eight years in the White House gave her the kind of executive experience most of her competitors lacked. But Obama, whether out of choice or necessity, ran against the very idea of executive and legislative experience.
Instead, he ran on Hope and Change, attacking his opponents implicitly and at times explicitly for two wars and the economic downturn which later turned into a collapse. Economically, Obama argued, the U.S. needed a fresh look at the middle class from someone not beholden to the interests of the wealthy. Diplomatically, Obama pledged to use his unique experiences abroad to connect on a personal level with leaders of nations arrayed either disfavorably inclined or fully opposed to the U.S. He successfully convinced Democrats that Clinton and Edwards represented an old order of politics that needed to be discarded, and then cruised through the general election by painting John McCain as another George W. Bush.
Obama won in 2008 against the collected heavyweights of both parties by offering an optimistic vision of the future, which included an attack on the entire American political establishment. Regardless of whether some found it naïve or lightweight, American public sentiment had clearly shifted in Obama's favor. Seven years of war in the necessarily ambiguous terms of fighting terrorists and a sharp recession that turned into a financial meltdown angered voters, who wanted to hear that life would get better. They were understandably hungry for change.
That's why Obama's struggles now have more than a taste of irony. If anything, the American public has grown more anti-establishment in sentiment. Obama can't take advantage of it, however, for two reasons. First, Obama became the establishment, co-opting the very institutions against which he once railed — the Clintons, Wall Street, his party's entrenched Congressional leadership, and lobbyists. That was more or less inevitable; even the most fervent anti-establishment politicians have to get other politicians to assist in passing legislation, or risk being seen as isolated and ineffective.
Obama's bigger problem is his lack of a coherent and positive vision. In 2008, Obama's team didn't need to produce a complicated and nuanced agenda for his presidency; not being the establishment was enough. This time, Obama has to either produce a real agenda to justify a second term after three years of economic stagnation, or he has to make his opponent look scary and weird.
So far, Team Obama has opted for Plan Scary. They have painted Mitt Romney as a heartless "vampire capitalist" and dug up stories of high-school bullying. They have used Ann Romney's passion for horses as a way to remind voters of just how wealthy the Romneys are. But those attacks have largely backfired as Democrats objected to attacks on private equity, an industry on which they rely for donors, and the mean-spiritedness of the personal attacks stoked sympathy for the Romneys, especially Ann.
In one sense, it's similar to Obama's 2008 campaign, but with a very big difference. Obama wanted to paint the Romneys as part of an existing establishment, as he successfully did with Clinton, Edwards, and McCain in 2008. This time, though, Obama isn't presenting an alternative to the status quo. Without a positive vision for a second term — or really any vision for a second term — the strategy looks a lot more personal than political, and a desperate attempt to distract from his record in the new establishment. The Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove wrote this weekend about the emergence of an Obama "mean streak," and quoted Larry Sabato comparing Obama's campaigning to high-school bullying.
We have a long way to go until the election in November, and the Obama campaign has plenty of time to change direction, so it's far too early to count them out. However, the 2012 Obama campaign has become the antithesis of the 2008 campaign, based this time on Fear and Inertia rather than Hope and Change. Unless they can come up with a better argument for four more years, the American electorate will choose Hope and Change again and give this establishment the boot.