ESSAY: 4 years on, Obama message challenge differs
There was clearly a period when he did not, when Democrats worried he would be a one-term president because he was not getting the problem. At one point, he said the problem was that he had not communicated well enough. ‘‘Every politician who gets in trouble thinks it’s how they are saying things instead of what they’re saying,’’ Paul Begala, an adviser to Bill Clinton, said after they left office in 2001.
But Obama seems more focused now on doing what is needed to keep his job. He has reconciled with Bill Clinton, no small task, and at times now seems to be running on Clinton’s economic record rather than his own, which makes political sense — if the public will buy it.
Yet even now, there are moments when it isn’t clear if Obama’s campaign fully grasps the challenge.
Aboard Air Force One on Saturday, Jen Psaki, the campaign spokeswoman, said Romney had more at stake in his convention than Obama does at his because ‘‘the American people know a lot more about the president than they know about Mitt Romney.’’
Actually, it is precisely because the country knows so much about Obama that he has the higher hill to climb. That’s the downside of being the incumbent. It will take more than Joe Biden’s bumper sticker for Obama to assuage two very different groups of disappointed voters — liberals who wish Obama had done more and swing voters who wish what he had done had worked more.
AFTER TRYING TO position himself as a conciliator and a mediator, Obama in recent months has been more confrontational with Congress and moved unilaterally on key issues designed to appeal to the base of the Democratic party — endorsing gay marriage, for example, and suspending deportation of young immigrants brought here illegally by their parents as children.
Those steps may help mitigate disappointment by re-energizing disillusioned liberal segments of the Democratic party. Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate is helping, too, and in the end liberal voters don’t have many other places to go (although staying home would be a problem for Obama).
The middle is a different story. Much of the Republican convention was an embedded appeal to swing voters that it was okay to have voted for Obama and now reconsider. In effect: They were seduced, and now it’s reality time.
‘‘Let’s put the poetry aside,’’ said Artur Davis, a 2008 Obama supporter who switched to the Republican Party and spoke this year at its convention. And that comment illustrates precisely why an incumbent’s road is harder. The very elegance of Obama’s 2008 campaign has become one of his major liabilities in 2012.
That means a recalibration, and this week is the moment to see if he can be a different kind of candidate. The test now is this: Four years on from the poetry that delivered Barack Obama to the White House, can he find a voice that makes the cadence of governing prose compelling enough to keep his job?
Michael Oreskes, a veteran political reporter and editor, is senior managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press.