Skillful politicians, it is often said, make their own luck. They have – or develop – the instincts to act, speak, or hold their tongues at the right moment. The best of the best use language and symbols to connect over and over again with their constituents, or at least with most of them.
Politics is many things: policy, determination, intelligence, and timing, including being able to read the other side and know how and when to push back from the clinch and land an effective counter punch. Politics is handling adversity, taking a punch and bouncing back. Politics is also performance, and performance is the ability to convey a story that connects both intellectually and emotionally.
Last week was the week when, I suspect, Barack Obama went from a presumptive favorite to be re-elected in November to, at best, an even bet. To say that the Obama campaign has a bad week is to say the Queen had a nice little party recently. It remains to be seen whether it was the defining week of this campaign that seems to last forever.
Obama’s no good, horrible, very bad week began with jobless numbers that showed a modest increase in unemployment and ended with the president, looking more petulant that presidential, making one of the worst rhetorical stumbles he’s made since the 2008 campaign. In between those two black Fridays came news that Republicans substantially outperformed Democrats in fundraising in the most recent reporting period.
If a gaffe in politics is defined as a politician awkwardly speaking the truth, then Mitt Romney’s “I like firing people” and Obama’s “the private sector is doing fine” probably are gaffes. I’m guessing both men meant exactly what they said. Romney’s private equity experience, by its very nature, involved a lot of layoffs and Obama, in real danger of losing re-election due to a struggling economy, must be chafing when he sees that corporate profits are screaming along and the wealthiest among us truly are “doing fine.”
The Romney camp is no doubt rejoicing that Obama’s well-oiled political machine seems to be seizing up. The president’s mighty oratorical skills don’t seem to have quite the magic they once did. And unforced errors, the bane of soccer players and politicians, seem to descend on the Obama campaign like a host of locusts.
Strip away all the obvious political problems the president is dealing wit: the persistently sluggish economy, congressional Republicans who refuse to deal with dramatically serious issues like the coming fiscal cliff of autopilot budget cuts and tax increases and a euro crisis that seems to worsen by the day. All of those problems, serious as they are, might be minimized, particularly in a race against a lackluster campaigner like Romney, if Obama could begin to tell a coherent story about his first term and what a second term might look like. So far he hasn’t and as a result a stumble like the private sector is doing “just fine” sucks the air out of his efforts.
The two presidential campaigns that most resemble 2012 were Franklin Roosevelt’s race in 1936 during the Great Depression – unemployment was more than 16 percent on Election Day – and Jimmy Carter’s contest with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter’s campaign stumbled under the weight of the Arab oil boycott, high inflation, and the kidnapping of U.S. hostages by Iranian militants.
Roosevelt won despite his economic challenges. Carter didn’t. The reason, I think, was Roosevelt’s ability (and Carter’s inability) to weave a coherent story about what the country had been through and what could happen in the future. Roosevelt also understood the importance in politics of selecting your enemy. In 1936, FDR defined his real opponents as the conservative, big business leaders of the country who resisted his New Deal reforms. He called them “economic royalists.”
If you wonder whether history has a tendency to repeat itself, read the words Roosevelt used when he accepted his party’s nomination for a second term in 1936:
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
Talk about class warfare! Roosevelt defined his opponents as opponents of freedom and the Constitution and as “over-privileged.” Obama, on the other hand, has been unable to shake the accusation that he is attempting to fundamentally alter the American system. Roosevelt was fundamentally reshaping that system and he made the effort the centerpiece of his campaign for re-election.
Near the end of his acceptance speech in 1936, Roosevelt uttered some of the most riveting words you could hope to hear from the podium of a political convention. “Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes,” he said, “but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
Roosevelt went on to win 46 of the then-48 states, even as millions of Americans remained out of work. He won, in small part, because of a lackluster opponent – Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon – but more so because he summoned a hurting nation to join him in realizing a bright, new day. The current incumbent in the White House has dealt with many of the same issues Roosevelt confronted in the 1930′s. If he is to be re-elected he’ll need to tap into the mysterious cycle of human events and call forth for Americans a new meeting with destiny.
In short, Obama needs to tell a compelling, aspirational story about the future and why the country will be better off with him in charge. If he can’t , he’s looking more like Carter than FDR. Re-elections are always a referendum on the incumbent – what he’s done and what he says he will do. That was certainly the case in 1936 and 1980.
If the president continues to run his 2012 re-election campaign based on getting the better of Romney with an ever-changing soundbite of the day, rather than explaining from where he has brought the country and where he plans to take it, he’ll lose in November.