Barack Obama: No more Mr. Nice guy

Just how ugly is the 2012 campaign going to get?

When Mitt Romney finally clinched the delegates he needed to win the Republican presidential nomination last week, the U.S. general election race began in earnest. President Barack Obama’s campaign has given a first look at its campaign strategy; 2008’s feel-good “hope and change” theme is long gone. The high-minded and genial candidate once dubbed “Obambi” has given way to the steely President who took out Osama bin Laden and has now set his sights on Mitt Romney.

No more Mr. Nice guy
Jim Young/Reuters

Even some Democrats were stunned by a recent Obama campaign ad attacking Romney’s successful career at Bain Capital as a story of corporate looting and worker exploitation. “Like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us,” says a worker in the cinematic campaign ad; it profiles a Kansas City steel mill that was shut down after Romney’s firm took over. Says another: “They came in and they destroyed—it was like watching an old friend bleed to death.”

Like the “Swift Boat” attacks that allies of George W. Bush unleashed in 2004, assailing John Kerry’s military record, Obama’s ads don’t highlight an opponent’s weaknesses, rather, they seek to reverse his biggest strength—in Romney’s case, a reputation as an expert in engineering economic turnarounds. The Obama ad focused on one company: Kansas City’s GST Steel, which Bain Capital bought in 1993, then shuttered in 2001. Bain, over those eight years, loaded the steel company with debt, using the borrowed money to pay itself dividends; when it eventually took the company into bankruptcy, workers lost jobs, benefits and some pension payments. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning fact-checking website, rated the ad “mostly true.” What it left out was the broader picture. As CEO of Bain Capital, Romney helped successfully turn around other companies, creating thousands of jobs. Several business-friendly Democrats lined up to denounce the ad, among them, Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, who called it “nauseating.” Obama’s former auto bailout adviser, Steve Rattner, labelled it “unfair.” Even Bill Clinton chimed in, defending Romney’s business career as “sterling.” Watch the video:

But Obama dug in. “This is not a distraction,” he told reporters. “This is what this campaign is going to be about.” By touting his business experiences as a qualification for the presidency, Romney made Bain’s record fair game, the President said. “When you’re President, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot.”

Under partisan assault from their own side, the skeptical Democrats rapidly backpedalled their critique. Pro-Romney forces, meanwhile, flirted with an even nastier line of attack. Republican strategists had urged conservative donor Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, a brokerage house, to mount a $10-million racially charged ad campaign. Sen. John McCain’s campaign had rejected the same line of attack in 2008; it would paint Obama as an anti-American radical by highlighting his association with his former preacher, Jeremiah Wright. Republican strategists behind the proposed campaign urged Romney to “do exactly what McCain would not let us do.” But after the New York Times published details of the proposal, Romney denounced it, and Ricketts said he would not run the campaign.

These early skirmishes raise the question: just how ugly will it get? The 2012 campaign already promises to be the most expensive ever. Forecasts estimate $2 billion could be spent by both sides and their allies. The growing role of independent “Super PACs”—which may accept unlimited donations thanks to recent court rulings, allowing a small handful of billionaires to drive the race—suggest the tone may go beyond the control of the candidates. Indeed, the attacks on Kerry’s war record were run by a group with far less funding, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

And incumbent presidents often run more negative campaigns because they are trying to change the conversation away from a referendum on their own record to a contrast with their rival. “There is a perfect parallel. In 2000, Bush ran as a ‘compassionate conservative’ who was going to change the tone of Washington,” notes Michael Dimock, associate research director at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “And then when he ran for re-election in 2004, he went after Kerry in a very negative way.”

Back in 2008, Obama didn’t need to attack McCain personally—he just needed to link him to the unpopular Bush while riding the wave of frustration following the then-unfolding financial crisis. But for Obama, switching tack is no easy matter. In 2008, he positioned himself as a new generation of political leader who would unite “red” and “blue” America and transcend racial divisions. Voters believed him. On the eve of the 2008 election, 70 per cent of voters polled predicted Obama would “be able to work with members of both parties in order to get things done,” according to a New York Times poll. An Associated Press poll shortly after Obama’s election found that 74 per cent of Americans felt “hopeful.” So does his move to a nastier campaign style risk tarnishing his image? “The 2008 campaign is still fresh in our minds and the contrast is going to stand out more. It’s a challenge for them to make that pivot,” said Dimock.

The Bain attacks also risk feeding the critics’ case that Obama is anti-business. Already, Romney is using Obama’s Bain ad as further evidence that “President Obama doesn’t understand the free market.” But pollsters say the negative road may not be all that risky. A major difference from 2008 is this race is tight: Romney and Obama have been neck and neck ever since Romney emerged as the presumptive nominee. In contrast, during the 2008 presidential race, Obama generally polled above McCain by margins that oscillated from a few points to double digits.

With the country deeply divided, and few truly persuadable voters in the mix, the campaign seems to have concluded the path to victory lies with turning out their existing supporters to the polls. “The basic subgroups that form the coalitions are very similar to what went on in 2008,” says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief for Gallup polls. Newport says Obama has the overwhelming support of Hispanic voters, Asians, blacks and white people who are not married or not religious, as well as whites with postgraduate education. Romney gets the rest. “I don’t see a huge amount of change,” he says.

The rise of the Tea Party movement that helped Republicans take over the House of Representatives in 2010 highlighted the power of mobilizing, rather than growing, the party base. It was a mirror image of the 2008 election: Democratic voters stayed home in 2010, while conservative Republicans flocked to the polls.

Democrats seem to have learned the lesson, as this video shows:

This time, the two candidates seem more evenly matched in terms of enthusiasm—so mobilizing supporters to make it to the polls may be more crucial than trying to win over swing voters. Negative ads may alienate some independents, but they can help anger and incite the base.

Will the nastiest ad campaign win? Not necessarily. The tight race has changed very little in recent months despite the ads and the spending by both camps, and outside groups. And there are still several wild cards: the looming Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of Obama’s health care reform law, expected in late June; Romney’s eventual choice of running mate; and the possibility of some major national security crisis.

The biggest unknown of all could be the level of unemployment in November, which could turn on the extent of the impact of the unfolding euro crisis. Pocketbook concerns could simply render everything else moot, says Newport—including campaign spending. “To me, the most important factor won’t be ads,” says Newport, “but the economy.” May’s unexpected uptick in the unemployment rate suggested a slowing economy and sent a chill through Obama’s supporters. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, responded with a feel-good web ad in which he asked supporters ignore headlines and focus on registering Democratic voters in what he boasted will be the “most sophisticated grassroots organization this country has ever seen.” “Just shy of 50 per cent [of voters] say the economy will be better in a year. If it can get up above 50 per cent, that’s great news for Obama,” says Dimock. “If it stays in the high 40s, boy—I don’t know.”

For more on this story, see