Winning the Future

How Obama Can Defy Critics and Shift Momentum

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In his second debate with Republican candidate Mitt Romney, President Obama should look to the themes of common ground and shared values, which he emphasized in his 2011 State of the Union address and which first propelled him onto the national political stage. Pete Souza/White House.

October 15, 2012 | Matthew Nisbet

As President Obama prepares for tomorrow’s night Presidential debate, he faces the most important public appearance of his political career. Obama’s poor performance in the first debate, combined with Romney’s successful appeal, has contributed to a tightening of the national and battleground polls, and a sizable enthusiasm differential that favors Republicans.  In the second debate, delivering at least a draw might help Obama stem the momentum gap with Romney, and the erosion of support among likely women voters. 

To do so, many commentators have argued that the President has to be more confrontational, going on the attack against Romney, calling him out on what they perceive to be the major “lies” of his campaign.  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in the moments after the first debate went so far as to argue that the President needs to watch more of his program and network: "We have our knives out…We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed."

Yet a lack of confrontation is not what has hurt Obama.  To the contrary, it is the Obama campaign’s one-dimensional negativity that has helped Romney close the gap in the polls and that has elevated the success of his first debate performance.  In the second debate tuesday night, defying the expectations of pundits and his base, Obama can reverse momentum by returning to the style and narratives that not so long ago made him a transformational political leader.

Economic and political conditions determine the playing field of an election, with this year’s conditions enabling a viable Republican challenge to a sitting Democratic president.  In today's polarized electorate, successful campaigns drive a master narrative that navigates the boundaries of these conditions, shaping voter preferences and turn out just enough to win the number of contested states needed for a victory. 

Democrats are especially dependent on not only mobilizing their liberal base, but also on engaging moderates and women voters in strong numbers, and in turning out those who might be relatively indifferent or politically alienated, which includes disproportionately young people and minorities.  In contrast, because conservatives outnumber liberals by nearly 2 to 1 among the American public, Republicans can rely more heavily on mobilizing their base with less reliance on capturing moderates.  They are further favored by the tendency of Republican-leaning voters to turn out on average in higher numbers than Democrats.

Obama’s campaign team – analyzing the economic and political conditions – looked to Karl Rove and his 2004 campaign strategy on behalf of George W. Bush as a blueprint, a strategy that now appears to be dangerously flawed.  Democrats merged their social media and field office organizing model from 2008 with the Bush 2004 message strategy, running a TV and media campaign that foregrounds relentless negativity, defining Romney over the past year as a heartless plutocrat, both an extremist and an opportunist, a serial liar and possible felon, and even a dog abuser.  The goal – like Bush did to John Kerry – is to use Romney’s strength (his business experience) against him and to define Romney as outside the mainstream, as an  illegitimate candidate who cannot be trusted, an elitist who does not share Americans’ values.

The Obama team’s master narrative is framed as “Forward,” but the message for the most part has not been about a hopeful future where Obama is going lead us, but about sowing fear around the caricature of a past where Romney and Paul Ryan are going to take us.  The message is further micro-targeted and refined in terms of identity from the “war on women” to the “war on science.” 

Yet in the first presidential debate, Romney appeared to be an exuberant, energetic, business leader-turned-politician, passionate about solutions and results for America.  His image contrasted sharply with the Thurston Howell – Gordon Gekko caricature that the Obama team (and MSNBC) has invested so heavily in shaping.  For many of the 70 million watching on TV, the spell of the Obama campaign’s story about Romney was broken.

The Obama team's decision to mirror the strategy of the 2004 Bush campaign may have done deep damage to their re-election chances.  As we reviewed in our recent article "The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Favors Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism" at the Breakthrough Journal, negative campaigning tends to favor Republicans, depressing political engagement among young people and minorities, and as some research shows, turning off women voters while motivating male voters.  In the 2012 campaign, polling suggests that these factors are likely at play given the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans, the depressed interest in the campaign among young people, and the erosion of Obama's strong lead among women voters, a margin that he depends on to win.

Obama’s first 2.5 years in office point to an alternative campaign narrative and strategy.  In particular, readers should take the time to consider the full text of Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address and to watch his speech, which was framed in terms of “Winning the Future.”   In that speech, Obama emphasizes the themes of common ground and shared values that he ran on in 2008 and that propelled him into national celebrity status after the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  His speech also reflects the blending and blurring of policy ideas and the focus on cooperation that was a signature of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Imagine Obama on stage Tuesday night at the second debate emphasizing these themes, rather than the confrontational style clamored for by Chris Matthews and other critics, and the one-dimensional negativity that has defined his re-election campaign.  Obama is a better speech maker than debater, but the frames and themes should remain essentially the same. Here are just a few highlights from the core message of his 2011 State of the Union speech that Obama should return to in the debate:

  • In a weekend address before his 2011 State of the Union speech, Obama set the tone for the challenges the country faced and where he wanted to lead us, just as he could at the start and close of tomorrow night's debate: "We're up to it as long as we come together as a people - Republican, Democrats, independents - as long as we focus on what binds us together as a people, as long as we're willing to find common ground even as we're having some very vigorous debates."
  • In his speech, Obama focused on a country that cares about results, rather than ideological differences: “We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children. That’s the project the American people want us to work on. Together.”
  • As he did in January 2011 and could do again tomorrow night, Obama defined his domestic agenda in terms of shared responsibility, collaborative reform, and government support for innovation: “Sustaining the American Dream has...required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle….Now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper.  That’s how we’ll win the future. And tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there.”
  • When asked at the debate about job creation and the economy, he could respond with these themes from his 2011 State of the Union speech: “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need.  That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs – from manufacturing to retail – that have come from those breakthroughs...."

To be sure, these themes are embedded in Obama’s campaign speeches and TV ads, but are very much a secondary message, drowned out by the Karl Rove-inspired strategy to make the 2012 campaign about the choice between the status quo (Obama) and a morally unacceptable, weak, and illegitimate opponent (Romney.)  As Obama prepares for his debate tomorrow night – urged on by his base to confront and attack Romney – he would be wise to remember the themes and narratives that propelled him to national prominence, won him the 2008 election, and that he has invested in across his presidency.


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About Matthew Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at American University, Washington, DC. You can read about his research and various studies at the Climate Shift Project and at Google Scholar, or find out more about his courses at American University, including those on Communication, Culture and the EnvironmentMedia, Technology and Democracy; and the Civic Science Lab, a short course for scientists. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet and Google +.

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