In 2008, as the financial crisis broke and John McCain panicked, briefly suspending his campaign and returning to Washington, then-Senator Barack Obama remained cool and unflappable — and the legend of the "no drama Obama" was born.
Four years later, the legend is eroding, Democrats are beginning to worry and a new opponent is surprisingly "agile" in keeping the President Obama off balance and focusing the dialog on the economy.
The "agile" theme is headlined in the Financial Times, which notes that "The Romney campaign has confidence and momentum in the wake of serial missteps by Democrats and also from the normally disciplined Mr. Obama, who has struggled to hit the right notes in recent weeks."
The Washington Post reports deep concerns among eight prominent Democratic operatives the reporter interviewed, who expressed concern that the Obama team is not listening to advice.
"But some Democratic veterans are wondering whether the re-election campaign, run by the same tight-knit group that led it four years ago, is equipped for what lies ahead," wrote Karent Tumulty for the Post. “'The bad thing is, there is no new thinking in that circle,' said one longtime operative in Democratic presidential campaigns who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid."
The panic stems in part from weak job numbers released earlier this month. It's axiomatic that in a weak economy an election is a referendum on a sitting president.
Key Democratic strongholds are now in play, due to the flailing economy. Three new polls show surprising Obama weakness in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvannia, writes Josh Kraushaar in National Journal.
"An EPIC/MRA poll of Michigan registered voters released last week shows Romney leading Obama, 46 to 45 percent, with only 41 percent viewing the president favorably. In Pennsylvania, a newly released Quinnipiac poll shows Obama with a 46 percent job-approval rating — in the danger zone for a sitting president — and leading Romney 46 percent to 40 percent. And in Wisconsin, exit polls conducted for the gubernatorial race showed Obama with a 51 percent to 45 percent lead, too close for comfort in a must-win blue-wall state."
A symptom of Obama's current weakness is that his way of going on offense still means playing defense. As the Hill reports, Obama was in Baltimore Tuesday and worked to shift blame for escalating debt back to the Republicans.
“It’s like somebody goes to a restaurant, orders a big steak dinner, a martini, all that stuff, then just as you’re sitting down they leave and accuse you of running up the tab. That’s what they do. I am not making this up,” Obama said, according to the Hill.
But the message is not working, according to James Carville, the strategist who engineered Bill Clinton's "It's the Economy, Stupid" victory in 1992. In a memo written to spur Democratic strategy, Carville and two colleagues write that voters “are not convinced that we are headed in the right direction. They are living in a new economy — and there is no conceivable recovery in the year ahead that will change the view of the new state of the country. They actually have a very realistic view of the long road back and the struggles of the middle class — and the current narrative about progress just misses the opportunity to connect and point forward,” Politico reports.
But the difficulty facing Carville, and Obama, is that in 1992 Clinton was running as the challenger, saddling the incumbent with a weak economy. After four years in office, an incumbent has a much harder time engaging economically focused voters without turning the election into a referendum on his own performance.
As Obama is finding, it's much easier to be cool when the other guy is on the hotseat.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].