By Amie Parnes - 04/14/12 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama in recent days has provided a taste of the sharp tone he will use in the general election against Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee.
Obama has emerged this year with sharper elbows than the “no-drama" candidate had in 2008. He is injecting drama, cranking up the rhetoric, for example by chiding Romney and congressional Republicans as being "radical" and “members of the flat Earth society.”
Obama, as one former aide put it, "is putting the bully in bully pulpit."
Obama took aim at Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget plan, calling it a "Trojan horse" for "social Darwinism," and he wagged his finger at the Supreme Court as it decides the legality of healthcare reform, his administration’s signature legislation.
“They’ve definitely cranked it up a notch because it’s a tougher race,” said Steve Elmendorf, the Washington lobbyist who served as deputy campaign manager for John Kerry’s presidential race in 2004. “Four years ago, [Obama] was new and different and his opponent was weak. Mitt Romney is a stronger candidate than McCain. He’s got a record he’s got to defend.
“Campaigns in general keep going faster, quicker and earlier and Romney is coming off the primary tired and probably looking to regroup,” Elemendorf said. “That’s the moment to go after him.”
Of course, it hasn’t always been effective and Obama arguably lost a few rounds early on in the 2012 slugfest.
Just this week, as Team Obama attempted to push their support for the Buffett Rule, the operation was distracted by a political firestorm surrounding comments made by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen.
Rosen, who is also a pundit on CNN, said that Ann Romney, Mitt Romney’s wife, “never worked a day in her life.” And almost instantly, Obama’s campaign moved to distance the president from the comment, with everyone including Obama and the first lady weighing in.
The flap came a couple of weeks after Republicans turned Obama’s private remarks to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev into a talking point and fundraising effort.
Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said she’s been watching the campaign ramp up their rhetoric in recent months. But she said Obama’s feistiness has “backfired.”
“[Obama] has become overexposed and he’s selling a product that people aren’t buying," Kukowski said. The Obama campaign, she added, "thought they started the weekend on offense and they found themselves on defense."
Even Republicans say the difference between Obama 2008 and 2012 is palpable.
“He’s gone from No-Drama-Obama to High-Drama-Obama,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said. “They’ve gone after Republicans hard in the last few weeks, everything from the Supreme Court to attacks on Mitt Romney but it’s boomeranged. They’re throwing mud against the wall to see what sticks but it ends up splashing back at them.”
But Democratic strategists and those close to the Obama campaign say the strategy is an effective one. Obama needs to come out swinging, to appeal to a dissatisfied base along with the critical independent vote.
“The base has been frustrated to discover that congressional politics is a glacially slow process,” said one former Obama aide. “So he has to turn up the volume and take the fight to the streets a bit more.”
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said Obama is drawing a very distinct contrast of himself and Mitt Romney together with Congressional Republicans.
“It makes sense for him to draw that contrast forcefully,” Simmons said. “It gets Democrats riled up and it keeps his people on board. The sooner he defines that choice and the more often, the better.
“It’s a very different campaign,” Simmons added. “He’s got a record to run on. He’s got to work hard to make that experience is put into context and the benefit of the bully pulpit is that when you’re ready to drive a message you can use it like no other candidate can. We haven’t even seen the full argument yet. We’re seeing shadows.”
At a fundraiser this week in Golden Beach, Florida, Obama attempted to convey that sense of the fight ahead in the reelection effort.
“You’re probably going to have as big a contrast in this election as we’ve seen in a very long time and that means that we may have to work even harder than we did in 2008,” Obama told a small crowd of big-dollar donors.
But those who know Obama say, despite his pugnacious speeches of late, they’re not expecting Obama to go into total “pitbull mode,” as one former aide put it.
“He’s Barack Obama. He’s very thoughtful, very calm and collected,” the former aide said. “He’ll never be a rabid, wide-eyed attack dog. But, I do think that he’ll be more likely to throw a punch this time around, if he sees an opening.”