Is Obama Unbeatable?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 11, 2012


After the successful Democratic convention in North Carolina, President Barack Obama looks almost unbeatable. With optimism within the ranks riding high, donations strongly pouring in and a campaign organization that has shown it can get the job done, Democrats feel confident that Americans will re-elect Obama. The only cause of concern for the incumbent President is the economy. Because one in every six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, Republicans still have a shot at denying Obama a second term.  


The Democratic Convention in Charlotte accomplished more than what Democrats were hoping for. Four years after an emotional convention where they nominated their first African American presidential candidate, Democrats seemed embarrassed by the contrasts people were making about the animated mood of four years ago and the somber attitude today.  After the Republican Party convention focused on the question “are you better off than four years ago,” Democrats seemed self-conscious about their own record in government. The convention dramatically changed the mood within the Democratic Party. The speakers, including President Obama himself, were able to revitalize the party faithful and resurrected the enthusiasm that was lost during the first term of the Obama presidency.


In fact, President Obama got all that he needed to get from the convention. The party came out of the convention more unified. All the leading democrats in the convention showed a commendable level of discipline. There were no scandals. Everyone worked for the common goal of helping secure Obama's reelection.


Former President Bill Clinton’s speech was particularly helpful. Clinton is a very popular politician. He commands an unusually high approval among independents. With his strong endorsement, Clinton gave Obama a much needed boost in some battleground states. Precisely because the highly polarized mood in Washington makes all politicians look like demagogic ideologues, Clinton’s moderate and pragmatic style drew sharp contrasts with the combative tone prevalent in the Republican convention. If the Republicans organized a convention to satisfy their faithful base, Democrats organized a convention to attract moderate voters.  Nothing could have produced more enthusiasm among faithful democrats than the perception that their leader was out with full force to win re-election.


Other speakers at the convention were also effective in bringing the message to specific voting blocs. Michelle Obama spoke directly to middle class women and reassured African American voters. San Antonio mayor Julian Castro went after the Latino vote and stressed the message that the American dream was still alive. He associated it with the structure of opportunities—often times associated to government programs—that have allowed millions of Americans to achieve the dream of upward mobility.


In fact, the message of the convention was all about the American dream. Democrats stressed that two conditions are inseparable from the path to upward mobility that is so central to the American narrative.  First, individual effort must be rewarded. But effort alone will not suffice. People need help and opportunities to achieve the dream. From good public schools to special government services for the poor, Democrats argue that the government is a central player in helping secure the American dream. Even a comprehensive health care program that provides support to low income and middle class families can be construed as helping achieve the American dream. Democrats sought to re-appropriate the American dream and associate with a well-functioning social safety net and opportunity structure. Second, democrats sought to associate the American dream with what you do after you achieve individual success. Democrats sought to draw a contrast with Republicans by insisting in that there is moral obligation to others who aspire to the same dream.


The Democratic convention gave a much needed boost to President Obama.  Mitt Romney benefited little from the Republican convention. In the eight weeks before the election, Romney will struggle to catch up with Obama. Moreover, Democrats have regained their enthusiasm and passion with their candidate. The only shot Republicans still have has to do with the economic recovery. Despite all the president’s promises and assurances, the economy is still growing too slowly to make an impact on job creation. Unemployment and underemployment remain high.  That will not change before the election. No president has won re-election with such negative unemployment data since FDR.


Yet, despite those bad employment numbers, polls now show that Obama is headed to winning re-election. So far, the Republican campaign to transform the election into a referendum on Obama has not worked. The excellent performance by Obama in the Democratic convention reassured voters that their president is trustworthy and honest. The contrast between personable Obama and distant Romney could not be more evident. Republicans now only have one alternative, run such a negative campaign depicting the economy in a much worse state than it actually is to attempt to bring Americans to reject Obama in November. If they do so, Republicans risk being perceived as pessimistic, anti-American and too negative. But at this moment in the race, they have no other alternative. After the Democratic convention, it is clear that Romney cannot beat Obama. Only the economy can threaten Obama’s path to re-election.