Barack Obama began his presidency expecting to be the next Abraham Lincoln. Now, he hopes he can be George W. Bush.
This is evident from his campaign strategy. Team Obama understands that it can’t campaign on its man’s record. However, it views Obama’s opponent as John Kerry redux — a rich, out of touch Massachusetts man who is easily ridiculed and plausibly demonized. Thus, Obama and his advisers hope to win the election the way they believe Bush did — by using the period before the conventions, when the challenger’s advertising opportunities are limited, to define the challenger in highly negative terms.
Given the left’s view of Bush, it’s understandable that Team Obama can’t accept the view that the 2004 election, like all others involving a sitting president, was a referendum on the incumbent. Bush can’t possibly have won because he prevailed in such a referendum; he must have won by successfully ridiculing and demonizing Kerry. Obama intends to win the same way.
But Obama and Bush are not similarly situated incumbents. In 2004, the U.S. economy was doing fine. And although developments in Iraq were hurting Bush, this development was offset by the fact that Bush was succeeding in the primary task the electorate had assigned him — preventing post 9/11 attacks on America.
The primary task assigned by the electorate to Obama was to bring about a strong recovery. Not right away, that would have been unrealistic, but within, say, three years. Obama hasn’t accomplished this, and he can claim nothing remotely comparable to Bush’s success in protecting the homeland after 9/11 that would offset this failure.
There is also a justified perception that fixing the economy hasn’t been job #1 for Obama — that instead he’s been trying to transform the economy through unpopular leftist projects, most notably Obamacare. This perception contributed to the 2010 electoral debacle for the Dems.
Bush was viewed by many as having detoured from his mission when he invaded Iraq. But, as noted, he had nonetheless succeeded in preventing new attacks on the homeland. As a result of this success and a well-performing economy, his approval rating as of election day was around 50 percent, several points higher than Obama’s is today.
This doesn’t mean that Obama is wrong to follow Bush’s 2004 pre-conventions approach. What else can he do? In fact, though Bush did plenty of positive advertising in the last months of his reelection campaign, Obama may well advised to stick with negativity, since he has far less to be positive about than Bush did.
But Obama is wrong to believe that Bush’s reelection was not, at root, a referendum on Bush. And he’s probably wrong to believe that this election won’t be, at root, a referendum on Obama.