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Will Obama's re-election strategy follow Bush's in 2004?

By Richard W. Stevenson

New York Times News Service

Published: Friday, Oct. 21 2011 11:04 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy in a speech.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — He will have hundreds of millions of dollars, the bully pulpit, Air Force One and high-profile supporters from Warren Buffett to Lady Gaga behind him. But President Barack Obama's chances of re-election could come down to a single strategic question: To what degree can the history of 2004 be repeated in 2012?

Or to break the question into its most important component parts:

Can Obama overcome the bad economy, and perhaps even turn it to his advantage in certain ways, in the same way that President George W. Bush overcame and in a sense turned to his advantage the bloody, expensive and increasingly unpopular war in Iraq eight years ago?

And can Obama do to his opponent — for now let us say Mitt Romney — what Bush did to Sen. John Kerry in 2004?

The parallels are sufficient enough that Obama and his team have studied, and to a striking degree are replicating, the Bush re-election playbook.

Already they are building a narrative in which Obama made politically brave decisions to do what was right for the economy, even if those decisions were unpopular. It is a theme that echoes Bush's argument in 2004 that he did what it took to keep the country safe, and that even if you disagreed with him, you knew where he stood.

As for defining the opponent, Obama's supporters are already hard at work hammering home the idea that Romney is an inveterate flip-flopper, a man without core convictions who says and does whatever is necessary to advance his political interests. It is an approach that bears a passing similarity to the Bush re-election campaign's efforts to paint Kerry as an inveterate flip-flopper, a man without core or convictions who ... You get the idea.

The similarities — and differences — between the two re-election efforts are a regular topic of conversation and debate among strategists in both parties.

"Politics is infused with rich ironies," said Mark McKinnon, who was Bush's media strategist in 2000 and 2004, noting that Obama had reached the White House in large part by running against Bush's record and policies.

At the heart of both approaches is an insight frequently invoked by Karl Rove, Bush's strategist, in 2004: An election is a choice, not a referendum. By that, he meant that an incumbent's job is not to prove he is perfect — it is to prove that he is better than the other guy.

Obama's aides now see their job in much the same way.

"If someone is going to beat us, they're going to be thoroughly known when they win," said David Axelrod, Obama's longtime strategist. "They're not just going to win by default. It's way too glib to say that not being Obama is going to be sufficient."

But it is way too early to know if the strategy will work for Obama as it did, albeit barely, for Bush.

Matthew Dowd, who was a Bush strategist in 2004 but voted for Obama in 2008, said Bush had somewhat better job-approval numbers during his re-election campaign than Obama does now. As a result, he said, Obama is at greater risk of facing voters who have already made up their minds to vote against him almost no matter who the alternative is.

"If he doesn't get some lift in his approval numbers, it will be hard to make this a choice election," said Dowd, who met with Obama late last year as the White House sought to regain its footing after the big Democratic losses in the midterm election.

The Obama team, he said, "wants to make Mitt Romney into the Republican version of John Kerry."

Obama stacks up relatively well against Romney and other Republicans in polls of head-to-head matchups in battleground states. But where Bush successfully cultivated an image as a decisive leader in a way that sharpened the comparison to Kerry, Dowd said, Obama could have trouble drawing as sharp a contrast.

"The value that the American public is looking for is a strong and decisive leader at a time of anxiety and challenge," Dowd said. "In order to make the contrast, you have to have that value yourself, and Obama doesn't have it."

Nicolle Wallace, who was communications director in the Bush White House and a senior aide to Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign, said Obama's chances of replicating the Bush strategy would also be hurt by opposition to specific policies, like the health care bill and economic stimulus spending.

"Obama at his core seems sensitive to the idea that this is going to be a referendum on him," she said. "You see it in some of their thin-skinned responses to criticism. To me they're revealing some of their feelings of vulnerability on that question."

McKinnon, who left McCain's campaign in 2008 because he admired Obama and did not want to work against him, said that once Bush and his team settled on a message in 2004 built around national security, they stuck with it, day in, day out. Obama, he suggested, has yet to find the re-election story line he can use to project his strengths and draw contrasts to Romney or whoever wins the Republican nomination.

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