Managing disappointment

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 4, 2012


As democrats kick off their convention today in Charlotte, North Carolina, President Obama faces a difficult task. He needs to convey a message of hope and optimism without sounding out of touch with the reality of unemployment, underemployment and falling wages that affect millions of Americans. He needs to look presidential, but must also respond to the criticisms made against him during last week’s Republican convention. Admitting that America is far from where it should be, Obama needs to convince voters that they are indeed better off today than four years ago.


Republicans have used the famous Ronald Reagan line—are you better off today than four years ago—to make the case for a vote against Obama.  Tacitly accepting that Mitt Romney will not be sufficiently motivating to run a campaign focusing on his own record and promises, Republicans want to transform the election into a referendum on Obama. Only if a majority of Americans believes that they are worse off today than when Obama became president, Republicans will have a chance of taking the White House.  The Republican convention last week was focused more on Obama than on Romney himself.  The Republican candidate attracted less attention to his speech than his vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Even aging actor and director Clint Eastwood got as much coverage as Mitt Romney’s correct but unenthusiastic speech.


To respond to complains about Romney’s lack of campaigning skills, Republicans have made the point that Romney will be a good president even if he is not a good candidate. The argument is somewhat problematic, since Republicans want to focus the campaign on retrospective issues, not on prospective considerations.   Republicans want Americans to look back and evaluate their personal lives since Obama became president. When they are forced to argue that Romney will be a good president even if he is a lousy campaigner, Republicans are drawn into a debate over policies. That gives President Obama an opportunity to attack Romney’s character and to draw sharp differences between his policies and the policies Romney and the Republicans advocate.


Democrats have found it easy to present Romney as a flip-flopper. Because the Republican candidate has embraced policies he used to be against when he was the governor of Massachusetts and also because he now opposes policies he favored in the past, Democrats have raised doubts among moderate voters as to what a Romney government would look like.  As Romney still needs to convince his hard line conservative base that he is a born against conservative, Democrats have consistently attacked him for advocating policy positions that are not in tune with moderate voters.


President Obama will embrace the opportunity to focus the campaign on prospective issues.  Obama will need to make some kind of concession that these past four years were more difficult than expected and that the recovery has taken much longer than most people thought. Obama needs to defend his record, but he also needs to admit to some mistakes and must find a way to express regret for the hardships millions of Americans have gone through. The Obama campaign will remind Americans that it was a Republican President who got the country into the dire situation.  Obama will insist in blaming the crisis on President Bush.  There is probably no other catalyst for unity among democrats than brining back past memories of the Bush years. However, Obama will also need to take some responsibility if he wants to move beyond the “are you better off than four years ago” framework Republicans want for the upcoming campaign.


The sooner he makes his admission of partial responsibility, and the simpler he puts it in words, the easier it will be for Obama to push the debate into the field of personal and policy differences between himself and Romney.  That is where Obama feels more comfortable.  The incumbent president must make every effort to transform the election into a choice between himself and Romney.  People like Obama better. In general, Obama’s policies are closer to the median voter than Romney’s.  Americans might feel disappointed with the economy and even with Obama’s performance. However, as long as they do not feel disappointed in Obama, or at least they feel that Obama is better qualified to do the job—because he has the experience or because Romney is a flip-flopper—then they will still give Obama a second term.


Obama’s mission in Charlotte is to manage disappointment.  He cannot deny that the country is far from where he promised it would be. Yet, he can make the case—and he will surely try to do so—that things would be much worse off under a Romney presidency. If he can do that with the same ability as he successfully invited Americans to embrace “change you can believe in”, then Obama will have framed the 2012 campaign in the most favorable possible way.  His re-election depends on Obama’s ability to transform the election from a referendum on his first four years into a choice between his moderate policies and Romney’s flip-flopping opportunistic beliefs.