All appeared to be going according to plan for Barack Obama until the first presidential debate. Mitt Romney was able to move to a seemingly more moderate position without renouncing his basic stance. He managed to do this because President Obama’s strategy was to look presidential, not to attack, and thus not to bring out the contradictions. It was only the next day, before a big public rally, that he made the point, saying that “the man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year.”
What Romney had been saying for the last year – and what the Republicans have been saying for much longer – is rather straightforward. It is a simple trickle-down principle: cut taxes and regulations on the rich “job creators” and everyone will benefit. Somehow, they combine this with major increases in defence spending and still come out with a reduction of the huge debt. Obama failed to attack this position effectively because Romney bobbed and weaved and Obama was reluctant to punch. While he recovered in the last two debates, he could not undo all the damage. In many ways his failure in the first debate reflected a deeper flaw in the Obama campaign.
The kind of punch needed would have been there had Obama been running a campaign that differentiated him from the Republicans, in effect rebuilding the electoral support base that brought him victory in 2008. Obama’s national campaign of 2008, led by his closest advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe, succeeded in energizing a large segment first of the Democratic Party and then of the electorate behind his slogan: Change, Yes We Can. When he first sought the nomination as an outsider in 2007, Barack Obama was an extraordinary phenomenon, an African American former community organizer and law professor, author of two bestselling books. He was clearly not your typical Washington insider, despite having served for two years as junior senator from Illinois.
After the collapse of Lehman Brothers brought a disastrous end to George W. Bush’s presidency, the country was ready for change and the 2008 Republican ticket proved to be no real challenge. Indeed some pundits argued persuasively that had Obama looked Caucasian like his mother rather than black like his father, he would have won by a landslide. Not only did Obama win a solid majority of Electoral College votes, but his coattails carried Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
The real campaign had been played out in the Democratic primaries, between Obama and Hillary Clinton. The confrontation between the senators from New York and Illinois energized the Democratic Party base (blacks and Latinos, women, first-time voters, students), to a level of enthusiasm and energy that had not been experienced since a previous senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, entered the Democratic primaries in 1968.