Hey, Newt, what’s the rush?
That’s what senior Democrats and White House officials enjoying the time off between campaigns are saying as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) readies an announcement he is forming an exploratory committee for a White House run.
After the midterm defeat, President Obama needed time to rehabilitate himself and reinvent his administration as sympathetic to the wants, needs and anger of the American electorate.
Republicans so far have been only too happy to give Obama all the time he needs.
First and foremost, the late start by modern standards to the 2012 race has enabled Obama to focus on being president.
The White House and Democrats believe this has helped the president build momentum since his rebuke in November and successfully portray himself as moving to the political center.
New White House press secretary Jay Carney can wave off questions about potential GOP challengers because they have not announced. Instead, Carney says that right now, the White House is focused on the problems of the American people.
The man Carney replaced, Robert Gibbs, told The Hill last month that he was able to take some real time off because of the late start, leaving him free to make some money before re-engaging with the campaign full time in 2012.
For now, the White House strategy of keeping Obama’s eye on the ball and away from the campaign trail is working.
Note the reaction when former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) criticized Obama, saying because the president is black he should have more sympathy for the civil rights of fetuses.
If Santorum said that as an announced candidate, it’s a safe bet that the White House would have been forced to respond. Instead, the comment was not even asked about at the next day’s White House briefing.
That doesn’t mean the White House or the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is ignoring those who want Obama’s job. The delayed start gives Obama and his allies time to slyly begin defining their would-be opponents.
Obama sounds like he’s teasing when he jokingly praises former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for his efforts on healthcare reform in the Bay State or U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman’s hard work on behalf of a Democratic administration.
But it’s no joke. Republicans might be waiting, but the DNC has been sending research and opposition drops veiled as “fact checks” to reporters for almost two years.
DNC officials declined to talk on the record for this column. They certainly don’t want to encourage Republicans to get in the game while the president has the field all to himself.
But other top Democrats say they are thoroughly enjoying the late start as they watch and read news stories about Republican discord, the continued influence of the Tea Party and the decisions by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (R) not to run for president.
“The longer the GOP presidential candidates dither on the sidelines, the more the Tea Partiers in Congress will hog the limelight,” said one senior Democratic official. “This dynamic makes it easier for the president to fly above the messy political fights on Capitol Hill and enhance his standing among independents.”
Democrats also think the late start will hurt the eventual GOP candidate, who will have less time on the battlefield to learn from early campaign mistakes.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican nominee, started indicating he would run immediately after the 2006 midterms. The extra time gave McCain plenty of opportunity to recover after a near-terminal campaign implosion.
Obama officially entered the race for the Democratic nomination on Feb. 11, 2007, and his allies have long believed that the prolonged and bloody nomination contest against Hillary Clinton made Obama a stronger candidate.
Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University and the author of the recently published book Jockeying for the American Presidency, said Republicans might be waiting for the end of the first quarter so they can start things off with big fundraising numbers. But she said the delay helps Obama.
“It allows the president to run from the Rose Garden and position himself as not only his party’s leader, but also the nation’s leader,” she said.
It might behoove potential candidates to wait, but it is lost time for the party as a whole, Brown said. “The individual calculus of the Republicans appears to be collectively diminishing their party’s chance of winning the White House in 2012,” she said.
The 2012 GOP crowd would do well to remember the lessons of former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who toyed with entering the 2008 contest for months before finally getting in the race in September of that year. Thompson immediately underwhelmed on every front, finally fading away and dropping out in mid-January 2008.
The longer Republicans wait this year, Democrats are hoping, the harder they’ll fall.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. This is his weekly column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection.