Obama is about to walk through 'the valley of death,' where candidates lose their way and are tested on an arid march. In this familiar story, the campaign that could do no wrong can do no right. —Alex Castellanos
Two months after the Obama campaign was said to be full of confidence regarding its 2012 outlook, the descriptions surrounding the president's reelection have transformed, and that confidence has been replaced with words like "unprepared" and "inept."
At the beginning of April, Buzzfeed reported that the mood inside of President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters in Chicago was jovial — presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney was viewed "almost as a joke," and staffers were ready for battle. Now, however, things have changed.
"There was this sense maybe a month or two ago that Obama was really riding high — that he had gotten his base behind him and the economy was doing better and it had this Clinton vs. Bob Dole 1996 feeling — that he was going to cruise," a 2008 Obama aide told Buzzfeed's Zeke Miller. "Now it feels like it's going to be really tough — a 2004 race."
The Obama campaign stumbled out of the gate, tripping on issues ranging from motherhood to gay marriage. Even attacks on Bain Capital, which Obama planned to use in dismantling Romney's business pedigree, have become an area of division among Democrats.
"The Obama team has come to resemble Wile E. Coyote — each silly plot intended to wipe out his adversary blows up in the plotter's face," Jennifer Rubin wrote at The Washington Post. "Moreover, with the hyperspeed of a New Media-era campaign, Obama is burning through his negative attacks with lightening speed. By July he might actually have to talk about some of the issues."
The "war on women"
Although Democrats were eager to push the "war on women" meme that began in February, it was derailed in April by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen's remark that Ann Romney "has actually never worked a day in her life." Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, the president and the first lady ended up condemning Rosen's remarks.
Like Ann Romney's quick Twitter response to Rosen, Republicans have exhibited speed in turning Obama attacks back on the attackers. When Democrats attacked Romney over the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law that helps women pursue pay discrimination claims in court, Republicans pointed out that although Obama signed the law, women in the Obama White House make about 18 percent less than their male colleagues.
When the Obama campaign released its "Life of Julia" slideshow as an appeal to women voters, it was met with derision by many. Factcheck.org rated some of the assumptions in the slideshow as "false" or "dubious," The Atlantic said the slideshow was "apparently built specifically to be co-opted by right wing meme-makers," and Campbell Brown, a former anchor for CNN and NBC, called it "a silly and embarrassing caricature based on the assumption that women look to government at every meaningful phase of their lives for help."
The "war on women" may officially have ended, though, after a recent CBS News/New York Times poll shows Romney now leading among women. A new WaPo/ABC poll shows Obama leading among women 51 percent to 44 percent, but the poll undersamples Republicans, which suggests the gap may be smaller in reality.
Launching the campaign
On May 5, Obama formally launched his reelection campaign in Columbus, Ohio. However, rather than focusing on Obama's words, the headlines of the day focused on the empty seats in the arena instead. Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams can claim credit for stealing the president's thunder after he tweeted the photo that started the "half-empty" headlines.
Even choosing a slogan has been troublesome for the Obama campaign, with attempts like "Win the Future," "We Can't Wait," and "Greater Together" quickly falling by the wayside. When the campaign settled on "Forward" at the end of April, critics responded by pointing out that the slogan was not only similar to MSNBC's new "Lean Forward," but that it also has historical ties to Marxism and socialism.
Gay marriage 'evolution'
Administration officials say the president's recent remarks on gay marriage were part of a pre-planned rollout, but Vice President Joe Biden jumped the timing by declaring that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage on NBC's Meet the Press. The president's statements came the Wednesday after Biden spoke, and one day after North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Whether or not Obama chose to support gay marriage because of his personal beliefs, 67 percent of people surveyed in a CBS News/New York Times poll said that Obama's "evolution" came "mostly for political reasons."
"Wouldn't it have been more courageous if Obama had evolved a bit before the North Carolina vote, not after?" S.E. Cupp wrote at the New York Daily News. "And wouldn't it have been more sincere and meaningful if his revelation weren't so obviously connected to his reelection and fund-raising efforts? Or if it weren't prompted by a gaffe from the gaffe-prone Vice President Biden, who had declared on 'Meet the Press' that he was 'absolutely comfortable' with gay marriage, thus forcing the president's hand?"
Bain Capital attacks
When the Obama campaign released a two-minute ad examining GST Steel, a steel company that went bankrupt eight years after being taken over by Bain Capital, the campaign inadvertently set off three separate reactions:
The Romney campaign instantly hit back with a video highlighting a 1994 Bain investment in a company called Steel Dynamics, which now employs more than 6,000 workers.
The claims in the GST Steel ad came under fire, as critics of the president's ad pointed out that the plant closed in 2001 while Romney left Bain in 1999 and that Obama campaign bundler Jonathan Lavine was the managing director at Bain when GST Steel closed. Kimberly Strassel at The Wall Street Journal argued that Bain's involvement kept GST Steel afloat longer than the company would have lasted without Bain.
Divisions among Democrats emerged after former Obama car czar Steve Rattner said the ad was "unfair," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell called the ad "disappointing," and New Jersey Mayor Corey Booker said the attacks were "nauseating." Booker, an Obama surrogate, later released a video walkback of his critical comments, leading some to dub it a "hostage video." After originally saying Booker made the video without talking to anyone from the campaign, a campaign spokesman later said the second video was made after Booker talked with a Democratic National Committee official.
Additionally, former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. said he agreed with the core of Booker's original remarks and would not have backed off the comments if he were Booker, and former Alabama Rep. Artur Davis said the incident made the Obama camp look "ominously like a cult of personality that tolerates no dissent." Even Democrats who agree with the ad, like Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., have caused problems for the Obama camp. In defending the ad, Clyburn said he disagrees with "raping companies." The Obama campaign was later forced to counter Clyburn's rhetoric by saying it strongly disagreed with his choice of words.
The Republican National Committee has been busy capitalizing on the split by highlighting the incident with a series of videos, and a new CBS poll shows the attacks on Romney's business experience may not be working anyway.
Challenged by reporters
The Obama campaign hasn't been able to catch a break on television or in interviews recently, with various surrogates and representatives catching flak from a mix of reporters. Pundits have not been impressed with the campaign either, voicing their criticisms in a variety of op-ed pieces.
In March, Peter Wehner at Commentary Magazine opined that President Obama's senior advisor David Axelrod appeared dull, insipid and unprepared during an interview with Bret Baier on Fox News.
"If this interview reflects the precision and professionalism of Team Obama, then this election might be easier for the GOP to win than I had imagined," Wehner wrote.
Tommy Christopher at Mediaite called Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt "woefully unprepared" during a May 21 interview with Anderson Cooper about the Bain attack and possible Obama hypocrisy.
"The general election is still in its infancy, but this is a stark contrast from 2008," Christopher wrote. "The campaign had problems with surrogates then, as well, but they had an incredibly deep bench of spokespeople who were not just studied, but knowledgeable ... They all knew the talking points, for sure, but they also knew the gears and servos, the guts of those talking points, they knew the policies inside and out, and they knew their opponents back, forth, and sideways. I can't imagine any of them being caught this flat-footed by such an obvious question."
CNN's Ashleigh Banfield took LaBolt to task during an interview for the GST Bain attack as well, saying his talking points were "mincing dates and cheating," and demanding to know if the ad was fair and clean.
When LaBolt claimed Wednesday that Romney had moved the goal posts and reversed his position on unemployment, The Associated Press called it "a fumble of the facts." The story went on to debunk what LaBolt said.
"Given how astonishingly competent the Obama 2008 campaign was, most political professionals expected the 2012 campaign would simply continue it," John Podhoretz wrote at the New York Post. "But what we've seen so far is a reminder that the skills required to mount an insurgent campaign with a charismatic unknown aren't those needed to mount a reelection effort featuring an incumbent with a problematic record."
"Because we have been told for so long that Team Obama is the very model of the modern campaign operation, we have come to sort of believe it," John Ellis wrote at RealClearPolitics. "In reality, they've been surprisingly inept since they set up shop last year."
"Obama has become what he came to Washington to change: He is politics," Alex Castellanos wrote at CNN. "There is a good chance the Obama campaign is about to disintegrate, if only briefly. Obama is about to walk through 'the valley of death,' where candidates lose their way and are tested on an arid march. In this familiar story, the campaign that could do no wrong can do no right."
If Republicans have been surprised by Obama's campaign thus far, perhaps they've been even more surprised by Romney's opposing campaign. Team Romney has surprised Republicans with the rapidity of its attack capabilities, Democrats by its fundraising and skeptical Republican leaders who are now beginning to believe Romney may have a chance to win in the 2012 election.