Should "Mr. Positive" go negative?

A Democratic political strategist urges the President to "go negative" in 2012.

At the end of my day on Wednesday, I watched a show on CNN called "John King USA." One of King's guests was political strategist Paul Begala. Begala is a Democratic party operative, a Washington insider, and was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton's Presidential run in 2008 before supporting Barack Obama when Hillary dropped out of the race. 

Begala's political advice is heeded and respected by many in Washington, so his words carry weight. When King asked Begala how President Obama should go about convincing people to give him a second term in 2012, Begala said the President needs to show the voters what the alternative would be, meaning he should hammer away at the perceived negatives of the right wing "Tea Party" candidates. 

There is no doubt that the Tea Party crowd has plenty of admirers, but there are many others with no use for Tea Party favorites like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, or Ron Paul. The prospect of any of them becoming President is troubling to many voters. New Englanders and other northeast voters want to elect people who understand economics, can solve problems, protect the environment, and manage crises; not people who reflexively dismiss climate change or seek to teach material appropriate for Sunday School in public schools all week. And the Republicans will not win in 2012 unless they can do well in the northeast states. But is Paul Begala right? Is it more important as the incumbent to denigrate an opponent or to defend your own record of achievement? 

When Barack Obama was the challenger, he made good use of negativity in his campaign against John McCain. He savaged George W. Bush under a barrage of negative campaigning, but wisely treated his war hero opponent with deference. He didn't run against McCain, he ran against Bush with McCain taking the rap for W's record. And Obama got the job.

But now, as the incumbent, he is the one saddled with a struggling economy and some very fluid political and military situations around the world. If he decides to mostly "go negative" as Begala suggests, it may appear that the President is trying to distance himself from his own record. There is room for negative campaigning, and some "on camera rhetorical duels" in the debates, but if an incumbent goes extremely negative, some voters will be put off. They'll say Barack Obama is a smart and decent man, but his policies have not solved the problems he said he could fix.  Other voters may feel he went "all in" too soon on health care reform, when he should have focused on the economy before addressing that complicated and potentially costly initiative. And while it is true that the GOP controlled Congress has treated him poorly (and acted recklessly) on many occasions over the past year, the voters will not tolerate anything that smacks of whining. So he should stay above the fray as much as possible. 

Obama does have some positive achievements that occured on his watch. Killing Osama Bin Laden was praised by almost everyone. And Barack Obama has always been a man who inspired others with his positive message. As far as defending his own record, the President does have some "splainin' to do" as Ricky Ricardo (of "I Love Lucy" fame) might have said, but he needs to "own" his shortcomings while trumpeting his successes. He won't win by simply beating up on his opponent. While that strategy worked well when he was the challenger, it won't be as effective as the incumbent.  

I think the President expects to run against Mitt Romney, one of only two Republicans currently in the GOP field that has ever won a major election in a northeast state. Preparing for Romney, who appears to be more mainstream than the likes of Paul, Perry, and Bachmann means the President will have to raise his game. He was elected three years ago because he was intelligent, different, fresh, and a Democrat. He ran on hope and change, and that message is still a good one.  But if "Mr. Hope and Change" becomes "Mr. Negative," he's not giving voters a compelling reason to reelect him.   

The 2012 election will be about Barack Obama's first term performance whether he likes it or not. He can certainly highlight the differences between his vision and that of the GOP candidate. And he can "go negative" on certain positions held by his opponent, but his main focus should be on defending his own record and laying out his future plans, because that is what the voters will judge him on. 

With all due respect to Paul Begala, I think his strategy for Obama is wrong.

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David Ryan Polgar September 23, 2011 at 11:06 PM
Interesting article. I am curious to see if Obama will in fact go up against Romney. The latest polls have Perry well ahead of Romney with primary voters, but Romney far better positioned in a head-to-head with Obama. If Obama does go against Romney, we are going to have some fun debates to watch concerning health care (I can imagine Obama saying, tongue-in-cheek, "I learned it from watching you, Mitt"). With Obama versus Perry we will have two drastically different visions of America, ripe for lots of negativity. With Obama versus Romney it will be more of a wonkish economic debate. Both are seen as somewhat detached, so there won't be a huge distinction in the "who would you rather have a beer with" question.
Bruce Bernstein September 26, 2011 at 01:57 AM
Thanks for taking the time to comment, David. I think the President is hoping he doesn't have to face Romney because he'd mop the floor with any of the others. But Romney's going to have one tough task just getting the GOP nomination. If GOP primary voters opt for a hard core Tea Party type asvtheir nominee, they will have only themselves to blame when the President wins reelection in 2012.
David Ryan Polgar October 06, 2011 at 01:58 AM
Bruce, Unless there is some last minute surprise, it looks like its going to be Romney now. Did you think that Jon Huntsman was going to gain more traction than he has so far? Perhaps serving under Obama would make him unable to attract the base.
Bruce Bernstein October 07, 2011 at 07:21 PM
I like Huntsmann BECAUSE he worked for Obama. As a political independent, I prefer politicians that are able to work with the other party. But you are quite correct that the qualities that make ME like him may not appeal to the GOP primary voters. Ideological purity seems to trump everything else these days. And that is a bad thing in so many ways.


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