Barack Obama’s high-risk, high-reward campaign strategy, and how Romney should respond

As John pointed out earlier today, President Obama’s reelection strategy consists of attempting to destroy Mitt Romney, and this is a sensible strategy because Obama cannot run on his record. Even so, it may seem odd that Obama is pushing his Bain-related attacks so hard this early, at a time when the polls show him to be even or ahead in the race.

The Bill Clintons and the Ed Rendells of the Democratic Party have vouched for Bain Capital, and the “neutral” fact-checkers have rejected Obama’s claim that Romney had a meaningful role in the operation of Bain after early 1999. Yet, far from backing away from his attacks, the president is doubling down on them.

Why? Because Obama understands that this election won’t be decided by Bill Clinton, Ed Rendell, or FactCheck.org. It will be decided by swing voters in states like Ohio. I can only assume that Obama’s Bain-related attacks ads have scored well with focus groups consisting of these voters. Hence Obama’s hyper-aggressive approach – a high-reward strategy designed to knock Romney out of the box before he has the chance to define himself.

But like most high-reward strategies, Obama’s is also a high-risk one. The risk is that Obama’s attacks will be viewed as unfair and dishonest. If they are, then Obama will have squandered his only real asset in this campaign – the fact that the public still seems, somehow, to like him personally.

Obama’s Bain-related attacks won’t be viewed as unfair and dishonest just because Mitt Romney complains about them, though. The attacks must be shown to be unfair and dishonest.

This is where the fact-checkers and the Democratic politicians come into play. By doubling down on over-the-top Bain-related attacks even in the face of friendly and neutral criticism, Obama finds himself in a place where his dishonesty can be demonstrated through the use of friendly and neutral sources. A simple ad pointing out, for example, that FactCheck.org has called Obama’s attack “all wet” and that Bill Clinton has praised Bain Capital should do the trick.

Through this approach Romney gets to play defense and offense simultaneously. Defense because Romney defends himself against Obama’s attack, as he must. Offense because Romney shows Obama to be untruthful.

Will Romney take advantage of this opening? I don’t know what kinds of ads he’s running because currently he doesn’t seem to be running any in my media marketplace (which includes Northern Virginia).

An ad his campaign circulated over the weekend tries to turn Obama’s aggression against him, but doesn’t do so effectively enough, in my opinion. Here’s the script:

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: “[W]hen the president was elected, he talked about hope and change. Whatever happened to hope and change? Now it seems he’s just coming right out of the box with these old-fashioned, negative ads.”

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: “You know one of the refreshing changes when the President was elected, he talked about hope and change. Whatever happened to hope and change? Now it seems he’s just coming right out of the box with these old fashioned negative ads.” (CBS’ “Face the Nation,” 5/27/12)

DAVID BROOKS, THE NEW YORK TIMES: “[B]y starting negative, by going extremely tough and extremely hard, looking conventional, and frankly running ads that are inaccurate.”

DAVID BROOKS, THE NEW YORK TIMES: “And now I think he’s at risk of throwing that away by starting negative, by going extremely tough and extremely hard, looking conventional, and frankly running ads that are inaccurate. (NBC’s, “Meet the Press”, 5/27/12)

MARK HALPERIN, TIME MAGAZINE: “Barack Obama’s campaign and allies will run more negative ads against this Republican nominee, in 2012, than have ever been run in the history of the world.”

MARK HALPERIN, TIME MAGAZINE: “Look, we have a recent example of somebody who talked like this, Barack Obama, and he got elected, but he also ran more negative TV ads than anyone has ever run in the history of the world against John McCain. Barack Obama’s campaign and allies will run more negative ads against this Republican nominee, in 2012, than have ever been run in the history of the world.” (MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” 6/22/11)

SCHIEFFER: “Whatever happened to hope and change?”

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: “You know one of the refreshing changes when the President was elected; he talked about hope and change. Whatever happened to hope and change? Now it seems he’s just coming right out of the box with these old fashioned negative ads.” (CBS’ “Face the Nation,” 5/27/12)

Do you see the problem? Romney attacks Obama for negative ads, but barely mentions the fact that the ads are dishonest. Perhaps focus groups have convinced the Romney campaign that this is the better way to go. But I think it’s a mistake to let Obama off the hook for the substance of his ads and to rely instead solely on their negativity. Obama has gone beyond what the fact-checkers and President Clinton say is defensible. I’d hammer him for it.

Perhaps Romney is doing this in other ads. But I think it should be the sole focus of his advertising right now.

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