The Agenda

Blake Zeff on the Obama Campaign

Capital New York has a short piece by Blake Zeff, a former campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, arguing that Obama has had a fundamental advantage over his opponents since he entered presidential politics:


Obama has the ability to run smart and aggressive campaigns without looking like a hatchet man. “Negative campaigner” is simply not part of the default Obama narrative, even, at times, when he campaigns negatively.

Running against him, under these circumstances, can get disorienting.

Obama faced two very high-profile opponents in his first presidential campaign: Hillary Clinton and John McCain. They both became so vexed by their inability to puncture his positive image that they lost control of their campaigns against him.

Frustrated with their inability to win a single news cycle, their strategy ultimately devolved into a simple determination to score points wherever possible, even when it put them at odds with their original strategy. With Hillary Clinton, a campaign based on superior experience turned to accusations of plagiarism and flip-flopping. In the case of John McCain, a campaign based on patriotism and straight talk came to revolve around a random encounter Obama had with a plumber about taxes (and, in the ultimate demonstration of their anything-to-break-through mentality, Sarah Palin). 

And now look at Romney, who set out in the general to focus voters’ attention, with relentless intensity, on the lackluster economy. As a result of losing news cycle after news cycle, he’s now throwing spaghetti, rigatoni, and fettucine against the wall, and hoping something will stick.

Earlier on, Zeff objects to the notion that there is a “systematic left-wing media bias” in favor of the president. This a carefully worded statement. The bias might be unsystematic, or it might be a socially liberal rather than a “left-wing” bias as such. Yet Zeff also acknowledges that “the mainstream press is certainly not out to get him, either” — which of course can’t be said of any rival to President Obama’s right, particularly on social issues like abortion rights. 

Regardless, Zeff’s fundamental point is sound. Given the asymmetric scrutiny involved in any race between Barack Obama and [insert name], it is easy for a rival campaign to lose its focus.