The Corner

Obama’s Big Reason for Going Small

Why is President Obama casting aside the dignity of his office and sacrificing his likeability (his real firewall) with such a silly and tawdry closing campaign? Big Bird, binders, bayonets, bulls*****r, Romnesia, Lena: Why triple-down on triviality when it seems so counterproductive? It’s as if Obama were flashing a great big Biden-sneer at half the country. Is this any way to win an election, much less govern a nation afterwards? Actually, from Obama’s point of view, the answer is emphatically yes. The president’s campaign may look small, yet its ambitions are large. That is the BFD that voters had best understand before Election Day.

The binder thing looks desperate, of course, and in part it is. The Obama campaign can only hype a war on women with the materials Romney and the Republicans provide. The pickings so far have been slim, but don’t let Obama’s tactical failures distract you from the vaulting ambition of his strategy. Obama isn’t just going for a win. He’s shooting for a “realignment.” Obama is trying to shape a new kind of electorate, creating a long-term Democratic majority that would allow him and his successors to stop catering to the center and finally govern decisively from the left.

We heard a lot about a left-leaning electoral realignment in 2008. That talk seemed to stop after the tea-party shellacking of 2010. Yet the truth is, Obama and his advisors never abandoned their quest to shape a permanent leftist majority, a coalition that would forever put an end to Clintonian triangulation and usher in unfettered leftist Obamaism instead. Obama’s frantic efforts to gin up the women’s vote and the youth vote aren’t only desperate attempts to secure his base. They flow from a deliberate decision not to fight for the center, but to build an independent majority on what is supposedly the “demographically ascendent” left.

Over at The Nation, Richard Kim gets it. Writing about the Lena Dunham “first time” ad controversy, he speaks of it as part of an effort “to realign the electorate towards the Democratic Party for a generation.” But the best place to read about Obama’s larger strategy is “Hope: The Sequel,” the New York magazine piece by John Heilemann that got attention last May but bears rereading now. When it comes to the course of the 2012 Obama campaign, Heilemann clearly nailed it.

His piece describes an Obama campaign willing to risk turning off socially conservative Democrats and independent voters by hyping leftist social issues. President Obama evidently made this strategic decision himself, and he publically began to adopt it with his “evolution” on gay marriage in May of this year. While Obama’s team is solidly behind the strategy, Heilemann makes it clear that some prominent Democrats don’t like it. Instead, they fear it as an excessively divisive approach that puts the great asset of Obama’s likeability at risk with middle-ground voters.

Obama’s strategy, says Heileman, is built around the idea that he can win with a coalition of the “demographically ascendent,” African Americans, Hispanics, women, and young people. To a degree, the bad economy has pushed Obama toward this approach. The obvious hope is that economic weakness can be countered by appeals to socially liberal women and young people on cultural issues. But don’t underestimate the extent to which this strategy is a deliberate decision that could have gone otherwise, as the behind-the-scenes opposition of some Democrats indicates. Obama is clearly willing to abandon centrist voters and place his own likeability at risk for the sake of creating a socially and economically liberal Democratic coalition that would allow him to govern securely from the left.

Painting Mitt Romney and his supporters as hopelessly retro Fifties retreads is at the core of Obama’s strategy, says Heilemann. All the president’s recent remarks about Romney and the Republicans as black-and-white TV re-runs, horses and bayonets, etc., follow from this early decision. The goal, says a top Obama strategist, is to get women, Hispanics, and young people to look at Romney and say: “This f***ing guy is gonna take us back to the way it always was, and guess what? I’ve never been part of that.” (No asterisks in the original.) The problem, of course, is that plenty of voters might feel there was some genuine good in the way America “always was” (like, say, the Constitution).

Yet it is a “paramount strategic imperative” of the Obama campaign, says Heilemann, to “freeze” Romney “like a bug in amber at the end of the dinosaur era.” If that risks making half of America feel frozen out, it’s worth it to create a permanent majority on the left. Summarizing, Heilemann says that Obama is intentionally pursuing “the mobilization of party fundamentalists rather than the courtship of the center.” It’s certainly turned out that way.

So if you’re feeling disappointed, insulted, or left out by Obama’s campaign of trivialities and low blows, it’s fair to say the effect was intentional — or at least that Obama was willing to risk offending you for the sake of something he wanted much more.

The president is going for broke. He wants to govern from the left and ignore the center. His top strategists promised a campaign that would permit this, and that’s the campaign Obama has delivered. Noticed that Obama has actually doubled down on this strategy when he still might have tried a last-minute pivot to the middle. That’s how badly Obama wants to abandon the center and take this country to the left.


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