Fred Barnes is executive editor at The Weekly Standard.
By the time he took office in 2009, President Obama had fashioned a reputation as an idealist committed to reforming the way business is done in Washington. But as president, he's allowed this reputation to fritter away. And what's left of it is now being destroyed by his harsh and misguided campaign for reelection.
Obama has become his own worst political enemy. Even when his job approval first began to fade, his poll numbers for being well-liked personally remained high. Now those are fading too. He's on the road to defeat.
In 2008, Obama ran a "bring us together" campaign. He presented himself as a political uniter eager to bridge differences between the parties. This year, he's unleashed an "us versus them" campaign, catering to Democratic interest groups and seeking to marginalize Republican challenger Mitt Romney as an unacceptable alternative as president.
Neither of these tactics is new to politics. FDR ran a divisive campaign for reelection in 1936, uniting Democratic factions and tarring his opponents as "economic royalists." In 1964, Democrats isolated Republican Barry Goldwater as a conservative outside the mainstream of American politics. Likewise in 1972, Republicans succeeded in branding Democrat George McGovern as unacceptably left-wing.
Obama has pursued these tactics crudely. He's done little to disguise his preferential treatment of narrow (but sympathetic) slices of the electorate. He's been concentrating on special interests, not the national interest, and it shows.
To appease environmentalists, he blocked the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada. For younger voters, he's proposed to keep the interest rate on student loans from doubling.Feminists got the contraception mandate. To appeal to Hispanic voters, he promoted the DREAM Act to give their children a path to permanent residency. African Americans? Obama intruded himself into the case of Trayvon Martin, whose shooting death touched off a protest led by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. If he had a son, Obama said, he'd look like Martin. For gays, he declared his support for same-sex marriage. For organized labor, he stacked the National Labor Relations Board with union partisans.
His blatant political favoritism has backfired. The pipeline, it turns out, has broad public support. The requirement that health insurers provide free contraceptives, with no conscience exemption, infuriated Catholics and evangelical Protestants. His endorsement of gay marriage was seen by two-thirds of Americans as politically motivated.
To ostracize Romney, the Obama campaign wants to make him personally unacceptable as a possible president. This is different from the way Goldwater and McGovern were marginalized — and more risky. They were attacked for their ideology and policies. With Romney, it's the morality of his decisions as head of Bain Capital that's being questioned. Obama would have you believe Romney is a bad person.
There's a reason for this. It would be difficult to stigmatize Romney as politically extreme. In a May survey by the GOP polling group Resurgent Republic, 58 percent of Americans regarded him as moderate or somewhat conservative. "They view Mitt Romney the same way they view themselves," pollster Whit Ayres says. "It's Obama they view as outside the mainstream."
Romney, by the way, has responded more deftly to criticism of his business career by the Obama campaign than he did to similar attacks by opponents during the Republican primaries. Andrea Saul, his spokeswoman, said this after an Obama TV ad blamed Romney for closing a steel plant:
Mitt Romney helped create more jobs in his private sector experience and more jobs as governor of Massachusetts than President Obama has for the entire nation. President Obama has many questions to answer as to why his administration used the stimulus to reward wealthy campaign donors with taxpayer money for bad ideas like Solyndra, but 23 million Americans are still struggling to find jobs.
Romney didn't need a compelling response to an Obama television spot that alleged Romney would not have seized the opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden, unlike the president. This is absurd. How could the Obama team know this? In truth, any president probably would have jumped at the chance to execute bin Laden. I suspect most people think so.
Obama's style of running for reelection has taken its toll. "The Greek columns are now in ruins," says Steve Law, who heads American Crossroads, the Republican super-PAC. He was referring to the makeshift columns erected on the Denver stage where Obama delivered his acceptance speech in 2008. Obama's "ham-handed" campaign has wiped out his "last shred of brand equity." He's descended to the lowest common denominator. He's a Washington pol.
Yet Democrats continue to cite Obama's likability as a political strength. Indeed, it once was. But no more. In the recent bipartisan Battle-ground Poll, nearly one-quarter of voters said they like Obama personally but disapprove of his policies. But here's the rub: Sixty-eight percent of those voters said they won't vote for Obama, and another 20 percent said they'll "consider" someone else. Only 6 percent said they plan to vote for him.
"For the Democrats to focus on the likability factor at the current time, however, largely appears to be fool's gold," insists GOP pollsters Ed Goeas and Brian Nienaber.
Obama has a bigger problem: the growing assessment he's simply incapable of reviving the nation. American Crossroads has conducted a series of focus groups with swing voters who backed Obama in 2008. Last fall, they reluctantly acknowledged he'd failed to solve the country's problems, though they didn't regard their vote for him as a mistake.
This spring, they've begun to render a tougher verdict: Obama may not be up to the job. Law says these swing voters won't be attracted to Romney by negative attacks on the president. Instead, he must persuade them he can succeed where Obama hasn't.
Obama's continued decline is not inevitable. As Ayres points out, presidents win a second term when their job approval trends upward in the months before the election. This was true for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and could be for Obama. But he'll need a far better campaign than we've seen so far — and a better presidency too. I'm not betting on it.