President Obama’s re-election team has been training its fire on potential Republican opponents of late.
But the question of what the president is for, rather than what he is against, has been met with diffuse answers.
Those answers tend to revolve around either general sentiments about protecting the middle class or a broad miscellany of policy goals — economic regeneration, environmental protection and educational improvement among them.
The problem for Team Obama is that, so far, they have found no clear way of encapsulating his case for a second term.
The option of running as the candidate of "hope and change" is no longer available for a man who has occupied the Oval Office for almost three years. But the search for a concise rationale for his candidacy — the ‘bumper sticker’ of the 2012 campaign — has not yet been fruitful.
Last week on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, Obama adviser David Axelrod was asked about this at length by anchor Chuck Todd. His responses, rich in curlicues, demonstrated the problem.
When Todd asked whether the aide could give “the elevator pitch” for an Obama second term, Axelrod first replied, “Well, I don’t know how tall your building is.”
He continued: “The short one is: let’s restore the economic security that Americans have lost — not just recover from a recession, but rebuild the economic security that Americans have lost. Let’s make work pay again, reward responsibility, restore those values that have made this country great,” he said.
“And, you know, that is going to involve a series of things that are more than a bumper sticker — it’s going to be educating our kids, it’s going to be research and development, and innovation. There are a lot of things that go into it. But that is the goal, that is the north star that is going to drive him.”
In terms of policy, that may sound like a good enough agenda to many Democrats. But in terms of a crystallized election message — something which is Axelrod’s speciality — it lacks both precision and magnetism.
Obama is a victim of his circumstances in many respects. The historically high rate of unemployment, coupled with the sluggishness of the economic recovery, render it difficult for his campaign team to come up with a message that is much more inspiring than “It could have been worse.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) acknowledged the difficulty. “I don’t know how you’d translate this but I think one [possible slogan] is, ‘We’re not perfect, but they’re nuts,’” he told The Hill. “The other one, which I considered using myself last year is: ‘Things would have sucked more without me.’”
Veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick sounded a similar, if less humorous, note.
“The bumper-sticker problem is the question of ‘What can you say in a few words that expresses the most complex economic mess we’ve seen since the Great Depression?’”
In advance of the 2010 midterm elections, Obama’s stump speech featured an extended metaphor about how Republicans had driven the economy into a ditch and were demanding to be given back the “keys to the car” back just as Democrats were righting things. The message did not get much traction.
More recently, Obama has spoken of “winning the future.” The slogan has the dual benefit of diverting attention from the recent, gloomy past and suggesting that a vote to put a Republican back into the White House would result in the future being lost. But Obama seems to have stepped back from using it so frequently in recent weeks.
In an October interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Obama was asked what two words were going to define 2012 as “hope” and “change” did in 2008.
“You know, I haven’t quite boiled it down to a bumper sticker yet. But I think what’ll define 2012 is, you know, our vision for the future,” Obama replied. “There is going to be a contest of values and vision in 2012.”
The most recent example of the drive for a crisp message came last week, with Obama’s visit to Osawatomie, Kan. The location was an attempt to summon the spirit of President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1910 had delivered a plea for a “New Nationalism” in the same place.
Obama’s aides have also appropriated Roosevelt’s call for a “fair shake” — in the process pleasing Democratic strategist Chris Lehane.
He told The Hill that in the general election “a Fair Shake message will make clear [to the middle class] that Obama is in their corner, fighting to make sure they can get a fair shot at enjoying the American Dream.”
As alternative slogans, Lehane also suggested “Fighting For The American Dream” and “We Are All in This Together.”
Carrick, however, sounded a note of caution when asked about Obama slogans like “Winning the Future.”
“My experience with slogans is that they are better if they evolve than if you lock everybody in a room and say ‘Come up with the magic three words.’ In those situations, the magic three words they come up with tend to sound recycled, like you’ve heard them somewhere before. If you develop the message, there will be a slogan that emerges from that.”
That may be cold comfort for Team Obama, however. Their message will almost inevitably revolve around condemning the Republican candidate and insisting that things would have been worse over the past few years with someone else at the helm.
Meanwhile, the gridlock on Capitol Hill makes it all but impossible for Obama to present himself as an agent of sweeping change — an appeal that had considerable emotional resonance in 2008.
All in all, a man whose candidacy exuded more than its fair share of poetry three years ago seems destined to make a much more prosaic appeal to voters next November.
Additional reporting by Ariel Katz.