On March 13 the Obama campaign released one of the more interesting fundraising appeals in recent memory. "If the general election were held today," wrote campaign manager Jim Messina, "President Obama would lose to Mitt Romney—according to the latest poll from Washington Post-ABC News." More troubling to Messina: "The other side has groups ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to tear down President Obama." The Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, "will spend and say anything to win." The letter concluded, "If the idea of a President Romney scares you, it’s time to own a piece of this campaign" by donating to Obama’s "two-term fund."
Leave aside the fact that "scary" is not a word one would normally associate with Mitt Romney ("boring," maybe, but not "scary"). What made Messina’s letter so revealing was his total omission of the incumbent’s record and of any positive rationale for his election to a second term. The policies of this president—the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulation bill, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq—were totally ignored for what should be obvious reasons: Those accomplishments are unpopular or slow-motion disasters in the making or, in several cases, both. Messina is left with the Goosebumps defense: Donate to the Obama campaign or else nasty Mitt Romney and his friends the Koch brothers and Karl Rove will come and … well, do something bad to you.
Barack Obama is now the candidate of fear. The press is so occupied by the Republican horserace that it has missed one of the biggest stories of the age: the Obama team’s adoption of tactics that the president would have ruled out as "politics as usual" only four years ago. The shift is born of necessity. Despite holding fundraisers at twice the rate of his predecessor, the Obama campaign’s high burn rate has left the president with less cash on hand than Bush had at this point in the 2004 cycle. These money troubles spurred the president’s hypocritical decision last month to support outright the Priorities USA super PAC. But even Obama’s endorsement has not been enough to energize Democratic donors. Priorities USA raised only $2 million in the month of February, half of which came from self-described "comedian" Bill Maher.
Obama’s tepid fundraising reveals a Democratic donor base torn between disillusionment and apathy. Some wealthy liberals, living contentedly in la-la land, are holding back money because they believe Obama has not been left-wing enough, especially on the issue of climate change. (An extremely witty Huffington Post video illustrates the liberal disaffection well.) Others have seen the mainstream media coverage of the Republican primary and concluded, not entirely without reason, that the GOP is no threat at all. Why write a check, then, when the president is a lock?
But the president is not a lock—and he knows it. The Washington Post poll that Messina mentioned in his letter was soon seconded by a New York Times survey that had Obama’s approval rating plunging 9 points in one month to 41 percent. His approval and disapproval numbers are about even in the RCP average, thanks only to a few recent polls of all adults with large samples of Democrats.
Yet "all adults" are not necessarily registered or likely voters in elections. The more closely a polling sample reflects the likely electorate this November, the worse Obama fares.
That is why he and his advisers have reverted to classic machine politics in an attempt to excite their donor base. Tactics include offering patronage positions to well-heeled supporters, rewarding at least 47 bundlers with an invitation to a state dinner, and of course the oldest trick in the book: attempting to scare the bejeezus out of people. Hope and change? Try fear and loathing.
Thus America has had to endure a month of lunatic debate over whether there is a Republican "war on women." The Democrats have devoted Olympian energy to a massive distortion of history, attempting to turn an argument over government infringement of conscience protections into an argument over just how closely conservatives resemble Piltdown man. The media helpfully have parroted the DNC line.
No Republican has proposed to ban contraception. The only clock the GOP (and a majority of the country) wants to roll back is the one ticking down the seconds until the final implementation of Obamacare.
But that has not stopped the Democrats, from friendly media to the president himself, from suggesting that only one political party is concerned with the fortunes of XX chromosomes. The latest transparently desperate move is Sen. Chuck Schumer’s push for a vote on a version of the Violence Against Women Act that is designed to fail. Such cheap political stunts are meant neither to make law nor to pursue the public interest. Their purpose is to increase the political fortunes of the Democratic Party by firing up the activists who form its core. The "war on women" sloganeering is intended to animate the feminists without whose votes Obama surely will lose.
Obama’s fear tactics are not limited to domestic issues. The president has repeatedly evoked the danger that might ensue if a Republican president actually were to take an aggressive approach to curtailing the Iranian nuclear program. "If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so," he said at his press conference last week, decrying "some of these folks [who] have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk." Meanwhile, the administration has engaged in leaks and in press spin devoted to the notion that an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be not only futile but also disastrous for American national security.
Yet it is not only the Republican candidates but also the American people who are engaging in "loose talk of war." Polling may show that the U.S. public is open to and indeed outright supportive of military action to destroy the facilities, damage and delay the program, and disrupt the Iranian regime. But, to hear the president tell it, the greatest threat is not Iran but Republican swagger and the possibility of outright conflict. The message to the antiwar activists who bankroll Democratic groups and campaigns: Get off the sidelines or our worst fear, a war with Iran, may come true.
Bogeymen lurk in every corner of the president’s rhetoric. If he’s speaking to a labor group, he raises the specter of what Republicans would do to their benefits and wages and jobs. If he’s speaking to Latinos, he suggests that the GOP is preparing to round them up illegally and engage in mass deportations. Not a speech goes by without a mention of the bad old days of George W. Bush. It is only a matter of time until the president and his surrogates tell African Americans that a Republican victory would mean a return to Jim Crow.
Oh wait, that’s already happened.
Obama soon will discover, however, that the politics of fear only take one so far. Animosity is a powerful inducement to political activity, but it cannot win over a majority of the country. The more Obama gins up his base, the more he alienates the independents and white voters who could be his undoing. It also helps when the fear in question has something to do with reality. George W. Bush warned against the dangers of Osama bin Laden and an axis of evil between rogue states and global terrorist groups. Barack Obama is warning against the purported danger of your uncle who watches Fox News Channel, criticizes Nancy Pelosi at Thanksgiving dinner, and doesn’t find 8.3 percent unemployment terribly impressive.
Obama is trapped. He is a victim of his own failures as president and his decision to abandon the ground of American unity that was always the key to his appeal. Voters are more likely to support a candidate who offers positive change. They want to grasp a shred of hope. It was Obama who offered that in 2008. It will be a Republican who does it in 2012.