The central issue of the campaign — granted, Obama inherited a weak economy, but then made it far worse — is at an impasse: Obama keeps pleading that “Bush did it” and a Romney would have made it even worse than he did. So we are left with a surreal debate in which 1.7 percent GDP growth, 8.1 percent unemployment, a $1 trillion deficit, and $5 trillion in new debt — all the indicators of abject failure that Democrats used to call all sorts of things like “a jobless recovery” and “it’s the economy stupid” — are now offered up as an encouraging improvement from where we were in September 2008.
The result is that all sorts of trivia will come up, as much as handlers insist they are irrelevant, and I don’t think anything is going to be off the table for a variety of reasons. The Obama campaign, as it demagogues the Bain Capital connection, can always (and correctly) note that they are doing nothing different from what conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry did during the primary, often to some effect. And if we are going to go back 50 years to Romney’s school days and Ann Romney’s horse-riding, then surely strange artifacts like Obama’s college transcripts, inter alia, are fair game — especially because all during the 2008 campaign and the first years of his presidency, Obama played on the image of a “sky-high IQ,” and in the words of one presidential historian was the smartest person ever to assume the presidency. To serially cite innate talent and erudition only invites proof of the same. Had the public known that Obama was, perhaps, a C+/B- student, then all the talk of his dazzling brilliance would have long ago been suspect. And the issue is relevant when Obama claims he did not have Romney’s silver spoon — if he did have some sort of precious metal utensil to parlay a dismal prep school and undergraduate college record into admission to Harvard Law.
But in a larger sense, 2012 is going to be nasty largely because the all too human Obama of today is not the mystical Obama of yesterday: 1) He will not have a sizable financial edge this time around to flood the media; 2) he has four years of a record that the public is not impressed with; 3) he has lost the glitz that resulted in enormous turnout among young people; 4) there will not be high-profile independents and conservatives who loudly announce that they are going to jump over to Obama; 5) he has decided to govern and run from the left, not the 2008 center; 6) and at times, he may well run behind in the polls. The result is that Obama himself will often go negative and will not be able to plead that Romney should emulate the restraint of John McCain — as if George H. W. Bush in 1992 could have urged Bill Clinton to follow the more noble high-minded Dukakis campaign of 1988.