U.S. election 2012: Barack Obama and the remaking of a President

The President is now the common man. It’s the new political message from Team Obama, and it just may be working

The remaking  of a President

Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

Click here to read Luiza Savage’s Aug. 30 feature on Mitt Romney. 

When President Barack Obama’s motorcade rolls through towns in the patchwork of battleground states where he spends most of his time these days, his supporters still line the streets waving signs and snapping pictures. His speeches are still met with exclamations of “Amen!” and are interrupted by women shouting “I love you.” He gamely repays with a flash of a broad smile and his customary, “I love you back,” or, as in a recent speech in New Hampshire, “I love you, too, sweetie!”

But this is 2012, not 2008. And Barack Obama is no longer running as the messiah, the super-leader who would unify America into post-Bush, post-partisan, post-racial bliss. After four years of Obama, the American economy remains in the dumpster. The unemployment rate is stuck above eight per cent, and glaringly higher than when he took office amid the then-unfolding financial crisis. He’s in a standoff with congressional Republicans over tax policy that, if left unresolved, could plunge the country into another recession next year. The war drums are beating ever louder over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. More Americans disapprove than approve of his job performance. By a margin of two to one, they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Whatever his predecessor’s role in getting the country here, after four years he now owns the mess—fairly or not.

Despite Republican Mitt Romney’s many flaws as a candidate, the presidential race remains too close to call. If Obama wrings out a win in November, he will make history twice. The first African-American president would also be the first president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be re-elected when the unemployment rate has been so high.

And if some Americans who voted for him are disillusioned, it’s not only on the economic front. The candidate who campaigned against Bush’s wars and record on civil liberties became the president who surged troops into Afghanistan, did not deliver on his promise to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, kept the Patriot Act on the books, and ordered the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen abroad—something even George W. Bush never did.

So now Obama’s case for re-election has taken a more grounded turn. It is composed in part of Clintonesque empathy, and in part of persuading the American middle class that no matter how bad they have it today, everything would be worse for them under Romney. Thus the former Harvard law graduate-cum-Nobel laureate finds himself campaigning in the unlikely role of Everyman. No, he hasn’t been able to fix all the voters’ problems (“I used to say back in 2008 that I’m not a perfect man and I won’t be a perfect president,” he often says), but he can relate to them in ways that a super-rich guy with a Swiss bank account just can’t. Obama is too unemotional and too skinny to pull off a true Bubba-ish “I feel your pain” moment, but he tries. “I know there are a lot of folks out there still hurtin’,” he likes to say. His presidential campaign is carefully geared to drive home a single overriding point: Obama is the very personification of the American middle class and, perfect or not, the only human shield capable of protecting it from the cabal of wealthy tax-dodging financiers intent on tearing up what he calls “the basic bargain” between the middle class and society.

When it comes to his campaign’s efforts to redefine the one-time cosmopolitan citizen of the world Obama as Mr. American Middle Class, no detail is overlooked. At a campaign stop this summer in Virginia Beach, Va., for example, the honour of introducing Obama goes not to the state’s former governor or senator who speak first, but to someone who perfectly embodies the patriotic, middle-class virtue that Obama now exults. Ericka Thompson, a young woman who is turned out attractively in a blue lace evening dress, is a Navy veteran, and a military wife of a husband who still flies F-18s on active duty. Rounding out the perfectly wholesome picture, the couple is raising young twin girls—while Thompson earns a postgraduate degree financed by the G.I. Bill. “He’s sticking up for families like mine,” declares Thompson, her nervous voice quavering slightly as she reads off talking points prepared by the campaign. She says Obama is making the tax system “more fair” and saving her family $3,800. “Our tax return meant we could take our first ever family vacation to Disneyland,” she adds. The President has championed tax breaks for employers who hire veterans, she says. “He’s had our back and now it’s time to have his again.”

Virginia is a key battleground state that voted for Obama in 2008, marking the first time it went Democrat since 1964, the era when conservative Southern Democrats bolted the old Democratic party over civil rights laws and joined the new-look Republicans. In 2008, Obama won Virginia by six points. The latest opinion polls this summer showed an exact tie between him and Romney. When Obama finally takes to the stage in front of 1,400 people packed into a high school gymnasium—and another 700 watching a live feed in an overflow room—it is to a rapturous welcome. Obama bounds to the podium to enthusiastic shrieks from his audience, no tie, shirtsleeves rolled up, he’s all “just folks’’ allure. He opens his speech, in which the words “middle class” will appear 10 times, by telling the audience that this, his last campaign, reminds him of his first run for office as a state senator from Illinois—where he frequented veterans’ halls and factories and met many single mothers—like his own. “In people’s lives I’d see my own life,” he tells the audience.

As he campaigns down the Virginia coast, he selectively edits his life story—sliding seamlessly from discussing being raised by a single, white, Kansas-born mother (skipping the part about the absent Kenyan father and Indonesian stepfather) to talk about his father-in-law: “He had multiple sclerosis, could barely walk by the time I met him, but never missed a day of work—worked a blue-collar job. And Michelle’s mom stayed at home until the kids got old enough and then became a secretary at a bank, and she worked as a secretary all her life. And they never had a lot. But they had a lot of love. And they had strong values. And they had discipline. And that’s why Michelle and her brother could go on and achieve things that their parents couldn’t even imagine.”

The audience laps it up. They love the idea that they have something in common with this man. And they love the idea that he sees them. When the President talks about his single mother, a pre-teen boy in the audience waves enthusiastically and points to his own mom, who stands next to him, grinning and nodding. At a speech in the city of Hampton, Va., the same day, Obama hammers it home: “When I see your kids I see my kids. When I see your grandparents I remember my grandparents,” he says, building up to the well-rehearsed climactic declaration: “I see myself in you.”

Back in 2008, Obama’s high-minded campaign speeches included such declarations as, “Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world.” Now the heart of his pitch is a bit more modest, more bread-and-butter; less idealist, more accountant. “We’ve cut taxes by about $3,600 for the typical family,” Obama says, taking credit for the Bush tax cuts that he temporarily extended through the end of 2012. Going forward, he wants to keep those tax cuts on income under $250,000; 98 per cent of Americans—and 97 per cent of small business owners—make no more than that anyway, he notes. But Republicans, he emphasizes, are holding those cuts hostage in their effort to make permanent the Bush tax cuts for marginal income above that level—a windfall for the small number of richest Americans who would require massive government spending cuts to close the resulting increase to the budget deficit. If he and Congress don’t reach an agreement, “I suspect most of you will see your taxes go up,” says President Calculator, “by an average of $1,600 on Jan. 1.”

Then he moves from the number cruncher to something of a philosopher of idealized middle-class mores, inviting his audiences—and by extension, the vast majority of Americans (almost all of whom consider themselves middle class)—to share in a hazy glow of moral superiority, industriousness and righteousness. The Americans who built the country, “knew that being middle class wasn’t about how much was in your bank account, but it was about an attitude that said if we work hard we can have enough,” he preaches.

“All we ask for is that our hard work pays off, that our responsibility is rewarded, that if we’re willing to put in the effort, we can find a job that supports a family, and be able to get a home we can call our own, we won’t go bankrupt when we get sick, take a little vacation once in a while, send our kids to college and let them do things so much bigger than what we did, and then retire with some dignity and some respect, and be part of a community and a neighbourhood and a nation that looks after its own,” he says to applause in Hampton.

The message is twofold: Mitt Romney is wealthy and therefore not of this virtuous world and doesn’t share its values. And, second, Republican policies would destroy the philosophical and economic foundations for the middle class: what Obama calls the “basic bargain.”

The “basic bargain” includes things such as the G.I. Bill that gave returning Second World War veterans free college education—which he now compares to subsidized loans for college students and tax credits for tuition-paying parents, for example. Or federal loans that helped those same veterans buy houses, supporting the postwar booming economy and defining the “America dream.” It includes any number of government programs that Obama can warn will be cut under Romney.

“That basic bargain is what built the biggest middle class we’ve ever seen. That basic bargain is what made us an economic superpower. That basic bargain is what made us the envy of the world,” he says.

Republicans accuse him of socialist impulses and class warfare, but Obama waves it off. “We don’t envy folks who succeed; we think it’s great if they get rich. But the main thing is family and values, and being self-reliant and looking out for one another, and helping your neighbour, and faith—that’s what’s important. It’s about the security of knowing that you can take care of your family, and that your kids can do better than you did. And here’s the thing, Virginia—when people come together and tap into that basic, honest core of America.”

Obama’s “basic, honest core of America” is not quite Sarah Palin’s “real America,” but the rhetoric works the same way. The implied message: Mitt Romney is not of it.

Indeed, at every turn, Obama touts his biography and personal contrast with Romney. “Neither of us came from wealthy families,” he said of himself and Michelle, in Columbus, Ohio, during a speech ostensibly on education spending—which he says Romney would cut by one-fifth. “Both of us graduated from college and law school with a mountain of debt. So when we got married, we got poor together,” he said, noting that he and the first lady, “only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.”

In Obama’s narrative, Mitt Romney, with his funds stashed in the Cayman Islands and his secret tax returns, is the perfect Gordon Gekko foil, and his running mate Paul Ryan is an Ayn Rand-besotted enabler to the greed of the wealthy few. “His new running mate, Congressman Ryan, put forward a plan that would let Gov. Romney pay less than one per cent in taxes each year,” he said.

The attacks against Romney’s record by Obama’s campaign and allied groups have been merciless. His spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter, a veteran of the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry, whose heroic military service was undermined by smears, apparently learned something from the experience of “swiftboating.” She has been behind some of the toughest rhetoric, going as far as to suggest Romney was either lying about effectively leaving his former venture capital firm Bain at the time he took over the Salt Lake City Olympics, or that he committed a felony in financial disclosures showing he was still its CEO years afterward, when it was investing in firms that pioneered in outsourcing jobs overseas. Meanwhile, Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, pressured Romney to release more of his income tax returns by claiming he heard from some anonymous former Bain investor that Romney had avoided paying income taxes altogether for years, offering no evidence to back the accusation.

Then a pro-Obama super PAC, run by former Obama campaign aides, ran an ad that implied Romney was responsible for the cancer death of a woman whose husband was laid off after Bain bought his company. It was widely criticized as misleading, but Obama was unapologetic, saying the group that ran the ad did not answer to his campaign.

Regardless of the exaggerations that have been documented by media fact-checkers, Obama’s portrayal of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy may be working. Opinion polls show that Romney’s personal approval ratings are below Obama’s.

Back in Virginia Beach, 64-year-old Obama supporter Elva Taylor says there is nothing Romney could do or say to win her vote. “Not if he’s got his money hidden on islands and other places,” she says. “I don’t think he understands poor people and those who struggle to survive.”

Before Obama takes to the stage in Hampton, centre stage is held by Jake Plant, the regional field director, a young fresh-scrubbed face of the kind that used to crowd to Obama rallies. He asks everyone to raise their cellphones and instructs them to text a number so they can send a campaign update. He says he needs volunteers to make calls to independent voters and potential volunteers, and for help on a national day of action when activists will fan out across the country to register voters. “We need boots on the ground,” he says.

It looks like the same tech-savvy campaign organizing that helped Obama win in 2008 by harnessing social media for organizing and fundraising, but behind the scenes, Team Obama is now taking its operation to a new level. Immediately after the election, the Obama campaign had post-mortems to go over what worked and didn’t work and, without a primary campaign to worry about, spent the next four years tackling intellectual challenges that past campaigns have never attempted. “They have been able to build an institution that is as close to a corporate-style R & D program as one has ever developed in American politics,” says Sasha Issenberg, author of the forthcoming book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, which documents the behind-the-scenes activities. For example, Team Obama replaced focus-group research on television ads with real-time experiments running them simultaneously in various markets, and a vast data collection and analysis effort possible only because of his large network of campaign volunteers. Where Romney has followed the traditional route of hiring outside political consultants, Issenberg documents how Obama has long been building an in-house team of dozens of data analysts. He’s got a network of local campaign offices around the country that dwarfs Romney’s. Democrats have a three-to-one advantage in campaign workers across the country, according to a recent tally by the Washington Post. For example, the Democratic party employs 200 workers in the battleground state of Nevada, compared to the Republicans’ 40. In the swing state of Ohio, the Democrats have nearly 400 workers, almost four times as many as do Republicans.

And then there is Obama’s unpaid army of volunteers who serve as a giant intelligence-gathering operation that sucks up information about voters’ leanings, opinions and likelihood to vote, and feeds into giant databases at campaign headquarters in Chicago, where quick decisions about messaging, organizing, and where to deploy the President on any given day can be made. The data allows strategists to refine their understanding of where Obama’s supporters are, which ones are likely to vote, who needs persuasion and who needs a ride to the polls.

Their approach of “microanalytics” includes an initiative called Project Dreamcatcher, pioneered by the Obama campaign’s “chief scientist” Rayid Ghani, whose previous job involved predicting consumer behaviours for private sector clients.

He has developed high-tech ways to mine all the words that get thrown at a campaign—what prospective voters tell volunteers in interviews or type into forms on the campaign’s website that asked supporters to “share your story.” His algorithms then look for patterns in the text.

“This is stuff that typically campaigns threw away,” says Issenberg. “If a voter starts talking for a minute about what they think about the war in Afghanistan, a volunteer wrote it down on a clipboard and it didn’t go anywhere.”

Now, not only is the campaign able to “listen” to crowds of people, they are better able to share the information across the campaign organization.

“In 2008, five different parts of the campaign could be interacting with the voter five different times—you could be getting an email asking for money while you just gave your cellphone number to be notified of the vice-presidential selection, while someone else is knocking on your door,” says Issenberg. Now the information is fed into centralized databases and used to build more accurate models of voter behaviour. Meanwhile, the campaign is getting better at following individual voters around the Internet. “They have developed the tools to link voters’ offline identities with who you are when you are moving around online,” says Issenberg. “Those types of problems are well beyond what Romney’s campaign is trying to solve.”

This kind of data-mining goes well beyond letting Team Obama know which voters should get Election Day reminders and which should be targeted for donations. It helps them laser-target his political message with unprecedented precision.

While Romney wanted to make the campaign about one big thing—the economy—Obama is now able to press voters’ buttons on a lot of little things. “They have the tools to make this a campaign about Medicare for a certain sliver of old white people, and about reproductive issues for a small sliver of potentially Republican women who are concerned about the party’s social attitudes, and to make it about immigration reform for a sliver of young Latinos who might not otherwise feel invested in Obama’s re-election,” says Issenberg.

It even allows the organization to better design campaign events. “With this really granular, individual data you can say, ‘We need to register another 4,000 people in the Cleveland metropolitan area’—and you can build your event around that, which is a different event than an event aimed at, say, 7,000 people in the area that are sympathetic to our message on health care,” he notes.

Such calculating sophistication behind the scenes is belied by Obama’s “just folks” performance on the stage. And the voters who show up at his events offer their sympathy for him. They feel his pain. “He didn’t get to do what he wanted because Republicans in Congress fought him,” sighs Taylor, the retired state worker from Michigan who came to see Obama speak in Virginia Beach. “It stinks.”

“I think he spent too much time trying to look reasonable to Republicans,” says Michelle Middlebrooks, 47, an administrative assistant from Delaware. She thought he should have pushed through government-administered, single-payer health care like Canada’s, not the private-sector based system that Obama eventually passed, and that was nearly struck down by the Supreme Court. In Hampton, Timothy Jerigan, a 43-year-old defence contractor, does not fault the President for being more aggressive. “You can’t make change in four years. I’m a business analyst and I know it takes eight to nine years to effect change,” he says.

Part of Obama’s introduction at that campaign stop in Hampton included Richard Willis, pastor of the First Baptist Church, who captured the mood of Obama’s faithful. He prayed, eyes closed, while members of the audience held hands, lowered their heads, or stretched their arms up to the heavens. “We made a lot of headway in a short amount of time but, God, we can’t stop now,” Willis beseeched. “We are not where we were four years ago, but not where we want to be four years from now. We are almost, but not yet.”

When Obama took to the stage later, he said, “I know we’ve got some outstanding preachers here, as well, so I’m not going to try to compete with them.” And then he did anyway. “The reason you’re here and the reason I’m here is because we still believe,” he declared. “We still believe in America. We still believe in hope. And we still believe in change.” It was a small nod to a campaign and a candidate that now felt quite far away.

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