As a relatively unknown first-term U.S. senator, Barack Obama entered the
2008 Democratic presidential nomination contest as a clear underdog
challenger to frontrunner U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, the former first lady
during her husband's eight-year administration.
Mrs. Clinton had the nomination all-but-locked-up going into the Iowa
caucus, and even though she lost there to Mr. Obama, the nomination was
still likely to be hers if she competed seriously in all the primaries and
caucuses. Overconfident, however, the Clinton campaign only contested the
primaries, ignoring the smaller caucus states, giving the Obama campaign
the opportunity to accumulate a sizable number of delegates before the later
primaries in larger states. To their credit, the Obama campaign skillfully did
just that, and grabbed the momentum that led them at the very end of the
nomination contest to a narrow victory. The Obama campaign, taking cue
from Howard Dean's innovative use of the internet for fundraising in 2004,
launched a grass-roots fundraising effort which culminated in their raising a
record amount for a presidential race. They raised so much money that they
declined the federal subsidy available to major party nominees, and at the
end, dwarfed the campaign spending of their opponent Republican U.S.
Senator John McCain who accepted federal funding.
Let us remember the political environment in September and October, 2008.
The incumbent Republican President George W. Bush, after two terms filled
with war and controversy, was very unpopular. The whole nation was
war-weary, and although Mr Bush had lowered taxes at the beginning of his
first term, he had also presided over a large increase in federal spending,
some if it of course for the war. Mr. McCain was a genuine war hero, but not
a particularly strong presidential candidate. Concerned with voter sentiment
about his age, and the unpopularity of the incumbent GOP president, he chose
the unknown Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Most of the
establishment print and broadcast media had become increasingly hostile to
the Republicans during the administration of George W. Bush, and by 2008,
were showing unambiguous bias against the GOP ticket, with particular
savagery to Mrs. Palin. Mr. Obama, who had his first national exposure as
keynoter to the 2004 Democratic convention, and had only a few terms as
a state legislator and partial term as U.S. senator in his resume, was not vetted
by the media which ignored the fact that most of the records of Mr. Obama's
political past had "disappeared."
In spite of all this, and particularly in spite of Mr. McCain's reluctance to make
his campaign a strong rebuttal of Mr. Obama's lack of experience, the GOP
ticket was ahead in the polls a few days before the historic crisis in the mortgage
banking sector appeared. This crisis was, of course, the last straw for many
independent and undecided voters, and Mr. Obama sailed to a decisive victory
in November. As happens with all presidential winners, the president-elect and
his campaign were hailed as "brilliant" strategists.
Now let us go forward to the present day. After the initial holiday with voters,
President Obama's popularity soon declined below 50% where it has
remained for some time. With control of both houses of Congress, and the
ability to enact virtually any legislative program he wished, Mr. Obama and
his congressional allies decided to enact radical healthcare reform, bludgeoning
any opposition along their way. The result was, and is, the most unpopular
major legislation in recent history, and this was clearly demonstrated only two
years after he took office in the off-year national elections when Republicans
took back control of the U.S. house and made large gains in the U.S. senate.
Since 2010, the government has been essentially in stalemate.
Since Mitt Romney secured his party's presidential nomination in early May,
Mr. Obama and his campaign team have made, and continue to make, several
egregious political mistakes. Team Obama had bragged they would raise a
billion dollars for their re-election effort, but they are not only falling far short
of this goal, Mr. Romney, for the time being, is outraising them.
Instead of instinctively heading for the political center, and for independent
voters, where virtually all presidential elections are decided (indeed, it was in
this area that candidate Obama had succeeded so well in 2008), Mr. Obama
has veered sharply to the left, presumably to shore up his political base. But
that base, however unhappy they might be, was not going to vote for anyone
but Mr. Obama in November. Mr. Obama and his campaign also has attacked
Mr. Romney for his business background, but this so far has failed to change
many voters' minds. In fact, the emphasis on Mr. Romney's successful career
in the private sector may be unintentionally helping the GOP challenger with
independent voters who are unhappy with the Obama economic record of his
first term. Latest national polls indicate that a large majority of voters this year
have more confidence in Mr Romney than Mr. Obama in dealing with the
It would appear that the "political brilliance" of the 2008 Obama campaign
may have been an illusion. Mr. Axelrod, the president's top political adviser,
sounds increasingly like a nasty political hack, and less like a master
strategist. Mr. Obama goes from one major verbal and political gaffe to the
next. Democratic candidates for the U.S. house and senate are increasingly
putting distance between themselves and the presidential re-election effort.
I say all of this, and it's not a "pretty picture" if you're a Democrat, while I
acknowledge how difficult it is for an incumbent president to lose a re-election.
True, Jimmy Carter did it, and so did George H.W. Bush, but the political and
electoral advantages of an incumbent president are enormous. Considering
the resources Mr. Obama has had throughout most of his presidency, he should
be sailing to re-election. He might still do it, but the omens are not good.
However it turns out, the election of 2012 should be one for the books.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.