What happened to the politics of hope?

Posted: May 10, 2012

IT’S PRETTY CLEAR that President Obama’s re-election effort, a/k/a the endless campaign, is intent on burying Mitt Romney even before Republicans officially offer him up as their nominee.

A $25 million, nine-state (including Pennsylvania) TV-ad blitz, after a weekend of campaign kickoff rallies in Ohio and Virginia, suggests an all-out effort to define the race in ways that seek to end it early.

It is, after all, six months to Election Day.

And you’re spending $25 million?

This ad run comes after some earlier, nastier Obama ads referring to Romney as “a guy who had a Swiss bank account” while outsourcing American jobs, and a guy who probably wouldn’t have gone after Osama bin Laden.

It’s a standard campaign tactic: When you keep your fist in your opponent’s face, it’s tougher for your opponent to talk.

But the current ad, titled “Go” — as in, I assume, “Here we go” — is the overall Obama message.

It has a theme, “Forward” — as in, I assume, MSNBC’s “Lean Forward.” But it looks back. It talks about how bad things were in 2008 before Obama took office, shows him sworn in in 2009, touts saving the auto industry, getting bin Laden, bringing troops home from Iraq and adding jobs to the economy.

What it doesn’t talk about is his signature domestic policy, health care, or, if you’re Joe Biden, that “big f-----’ deal.”

It is no accident that the ad is running in the very states widely identified, including in a New York Times piece last Sunday, as the country’s critical swing states.

Again, part of a standard campaign tactic: Set a narrative and drive it home as early, as hard and as often as possible.

Romney will push a counter-narrative focused on still-high unemployment and stagnant median household income, which is a powerful message.

Most national polling by Gallup and others shows the race is a dead heat, although a Reuters poll Tuesday showed Obama up 7 points.

I wonder about several things.

Has the lasting recession changed the way average voters view politics and politicians?

Does over-the-top spending to woo support end up having a reverse effect?

Do people who’ve lost jobs, homes or income, or watched savings diminish and debts increase, remain receptive to messages that things soon will get better?

Do they still have a tolerance for promises made?

My guess is that the atmosphere is different today than in 2008.

And that’s not the only thing different.

It’s clear that the incumbent campaigner now seeking a second four-year term is not the same messenger who rocketed to national prominence with a Democratic convention keynote speech in 2004.

I was on the convention floor during that speech in Boston because keynote speeches are usually a good time to grab interviews.

But as the then-state senator from Illinois spoke, I noticed that people actually were paying attention.

His message was of one America, of the commonality that red states and blue states share. His challenge was to forego “a politics of cynicism” to “participate in a politics of hope.”

But now, after trashing super-PAC money (and the Supreme Court for allowing it) before deciding to use it; after speaking out on gun control, immigration and Guantanamo before bailing on them; after promising to change the tone of Washington before presiding over ever-harsher tones, it is hard to see much “politics of hope.”

This is not to say he loses. Money, drive and likability still elect and re-elect politicians. And Romney, demonstrably, is not the strongest candidate.

It’s just that the change that Obama once represented has evolved (not unlike his position on gay marriage) into a familiar pattern, the politics of predictability.

Maybe that’s just cynicism. But as H.L. Mencken once said, “The cynics are right nine times out of 10.” n

For recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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