Referendum on Obama

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 29, 2012


Given candidate Mitt Romney’s weaknesses, the best chance Republicans have to retake the White House is to transform the election into a referendum on Obama’s first term. If the campaign focuses on the mediocre performance of the American economy and the dominant perception that the country is headed in in the wrong direction, Americans might deny Obama a second term, regardless of how unattractive candidate Mitt Romney turned out to be.


Incumbent presidents always start with an electoral advantage. Because incumbents can use the symbolic power of the office to shore up support, unseating an incumbent is always an uphill battle. Three of the last five incumbent presidents won re-election. Only Jimmy Carter in 1980, affected by a combination of an economic and political crisis, and George H. Bush in 1992, in the middle of another economic crisis, failed to win re-election. Most observers now anticipate that Barack Obama will not be denied a second term. However, since an economic crisis is a necessary—though not sufficient—condition to make the challenger competitive, 2012 will be a year when then incumbent president is particularly vulnerable.


The process that culminated with Romney wining the Republican presidential nomination was particularly divisive.  As rightwing conservatives dominated among primary voters, Republican presidential hopefuls adopted increasingly conservative views. Formerly a pragmatic moderate, Romney also moved to the right. National elections normally induce candidates to adopt moderate positions. Candidates who purposely adopt more radical views just to secure their party’s nomination find it easy to go back to their initial moderate views. Though he has so far not moved back to the center, Romney is widely expected to re-embrace the pragmatic views he held as the Republican governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts.


However, going back to his moderate self will not be enough for Romney to be competitive. He is up against a very personable incumbent president. It would be a challenge for anyone to compete against Obama on a life story or personality traits. For Romney, whose privileged upbringing and enormous wealth hinder his ability to relate to average Americans, the task is especially daunting. Polls have consistently shown that Americans see Obama as more familiar with their reality than Romney. True, Obama’s personal life story makes him an easy target to be depicted as a member of the liberal democratic elite. Moreover, after four years in the White House, it is difficult for any president to pretend to see eye to eye with average American voters.  Still, Romney has so far failed to take advantage of a those key vulnerable spots of the incumbent president. If the election is decided on which candidates Americans like better as a person, Obama will certainly win.


Thus, Republicans need to steer the campaign towards economic issues. They hope to frame it as a referendum on Obama’s 4-year presidency. If the election ends up being a plebiscite on whether people are better off today than four years ago, Obama’s prospects look bleak. People do not necessarily blame Obama for the crisis, but they do have a negative assessment of his performance in leading the country back into the right track. The highly optimistic tone of the Obama 2008 campaign and the repeated calls to bipartisanship made by Obama sharply contrast today’s reality of political polarization and bickering in Washington. Obama might not be responsible for the incendiary rhetoric, but Americans do partially blame the President for failing to bring about bipartisan compromise.


Realizing that an electorate with a retrospective view on economic performance is not a good battleground, the Obama campaign seeks to transform the election into a choice between the well-liked incumbent President and the often socially awkward Republican nominee. Rather than contrasting Obama and Romney’s economic policy proposals—which would inevitably put the focus on the nation’s economic performance under Obama—Democratic strategists seek to establish the battleground squarely and exclusively on the personalities, beliefs and personal life stories of the candidates. They have good reasons to believe that Americans will prefer Obama over Romney if they have to choose on feelings and personalities.


Republicans are responding by highlighting Romney’s managerial experience and economics background. The Republican message is that Romney might not be a likable person, but he is knowledgeable and has the skills and ability to get the U.S. back on the right track. When an airplane is in trouble, you want a pilot who knows how to land safely, even if he is not charming. They want the election to be about issues, not personalities.


With the long Memorial Day weekend over, Americans have officially entered their summer season. People pay less attention to politics and campaigns over the summer, but parties refine the strategies they will use when the campaigns go into full swing starting in late August.  Whoever wins the framing war will start with an enormous advantage. If the election is a referendum on the past four years, Romney has a good chance of winning. If the vote is on which candidate is better liked by Americans, Obama will certainly win.