The Obama strategy: from hope to fear

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 17, 2012


After ‘hope’ was the word most closely associated with Obama’s presidential campaign message in 2008, the word ‘fear’ will be central to his re-election campaign in 2012. Because incumbent presidents cannot just run on promises alone, and because the Republican candidate raises concerns about his past history and his present priorities, Obama will likely try to repeat a presidential election victory by sticking to a one-word message, albeit a very different word.


In 2008, Barack Obama embodied the message of chance. Americans overwhelmingly believed the country was moving in the wrong direction. After 8 years of a Republican White House, and after two terms with President George W. Bush, Americans were ready to turn the page.  Obama rose to prominence in the democratic primaries precisely because he represented the kind of ideological and generational change that resonated with Americans.  Although Hillary Clinton was probably better prepared to be president, Americans were so eager to embrace change that Obama had an edge over his rivals. Hillary Clinton first and John McCain later represented too little change too late for Americans to feel comfortable with. Obama cruised to win the primaries because he successfully embodied the notion of change and then easily defeated McCain because he was convinced Americans that he embodied change they could believe in.


In 2012, after a 4-year term with its ups and downs, Obama would be a fool if he again ran on the notion of change.  He already has a record as president. With notable successes and undeniable failures, Obama has forged a legacy that will be at the center of the 2012 campaign.  The incumbent president can now associate his name with strengths, like experience, and concrete legacies, like health care reform and student loans. His opponent will link Obama’s legacies to controversial issues, like the prolonged economic crisis and the high levels of unemployment.  In addition, as it is inevitable with all incumbents, Obama now represents continuity. Whoever runs against him can easily appropriate the notion of change.


The Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, has sought to embrace the notion of change. Given the dire economic conditions, with high levels of unemployment among white collar workers, a key voting bloc in several battleground states, it makes sense for Romney to seek to embody the concept of change. When a majority of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, the presidential nominee of the opposition party has an enormous advantage over the incumbent. If he could have embodied the notion of change the same way Obama did in 2008, Romney would be running with a huge advantage in this election season.


However, Romney has failed to specify the kind of change he would bring about. In fact, he allowed his opponents in the Republican primaries to define his personality and his campaign message. Most recently, President Obama has also taken the offensive in defining Romney’s personality, past record and priorities. In an aggressive television ad campaign, the Obama team has transformed Romney’s past involvement in Bain Capital, an investment company, into a central campaign issue. By picking and choosing from the many management recommendations and advice Bain Capital made to its clients in the 1980s and 1990s, Obama has portrayed the company as a greedy bunch of business people who would always recommend outsourcing jobs to foreign countries. In the campaign ads, Bain is shown as being more preoccupied with capital rather than with the fate of American workers. In a context of high unemployment, Obama’s camp wants to share the blame with—if not fully assign it to—his Republican opponent. 


It remains to be seen if the Obama strategy to define—and corner—Romney as a business consultant who had no concern for the well-being of working class Americans will work.  So far, Obama continues to hold a marginal advantage over Romney in most battleground states.  If the election were held today, Obama would win a second term.


The President will fully use the weapon of fear in the 2012 campaign. Many of those who enthusiastically voted for him in 2008 are disappointed to see that the change they voted for did not materialize—or at best only partially happened. For them, the message of change will certainly not work, much less if Republicans now represent change. For those voters who supported Obama in 2008 and are now looking for a good reason to turnout and cast a vote in November, the message of fear might just do the trick. 


If he succeeds in portraying Romney as a businessman who will take a country going in the wrong direction and take it back to the point that created all the problems we now live in, Obama will achieve the same objective he achieved in 2008, mobilizing millions of voters in support of his campaign. If the message in 2008 was “change you can believe in”, the message in 2012 might very well turn out to be “fear that can get you out to vote.