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By any objective measure, President Obama should be losing his race for reelection. It shouldn’t even be close. Growth is anemic. Unemployment is a full point higher than it was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won reelection—the previous high-water mark. By 2 to 1, Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Yet Obama appears to hold a narrow lead in the all-important battleground states, which will decide the election. As much as anything, that’s a reflection of Mitt Romney’s weakness as a challenger.
Polls suggest Romney got little or no bounce from last week’s Republican National Convention. Even so, Team Obama has run about as effective a campaign as could be imagined, shifting the focus of attention away from the president’s performance and onto more favorable terrain, such as Romney’s character and business career. The Democratic convention in Charlotte presents an opportunity to intensify this focus and—Democrats hope—help Obama gain a decisive advantage in a race that’s still very close. Here are five things Obama and his party need to accomplish in Charlotte:
1. Paint a Plausible Vision of the Next Four Years. The most effective Republican argument against a second term is, “Obama’s out of ideas, so why would the next four years be any different?” The president has done a strikingly poor job of sketching out his vision, seemingly content to offer up the same bromides about a clean energy revolution and suggest that Republican intransigence will subside if he’s reelected. He’ll need to do better. It’s true that Romney hasn’t offered much either. But as the challenger, it’s assumed he’d do things differently.
2. Make Romney Look Even Worse. Romney has belatedly begun posing Reagan’s old question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Even some Democrats, including Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, concede that the answer is no. The plain fact that it’s difficult to explain away the weak economy is what prompted the Obama campaign’s brutal early attacks on Romney, from raising questions about his tax returns to highlighting the plight of workers laid off by Bain-owned companies. Romney’s low favorability ratings suggest those attacks worked. Just as Republicans at their convention used Bain workers to testify to Romney’s good character, Democrats will use other workers to drive home the message that Romney is a ruthless, heartless plutocrat—and that the election is really a question of whether Americans want such a person as their president.
3. Guard Against Hubris. Judging from public opinion polls, the Obama camp’s cocky assuredness seems more than slightly out of whack. They’re not up by that much. And headlines like “Team Obama Thinks They’ve Already Won” don’t help their cause. Whether or not this confidence is warranted—I’m skeptical—it’s unbecoming and risks conveying to big donors and ambivalent supporters alike that their participation is not necessary to ensure an Obama victory. All campaigns must project confidence, but the sneaking hubris of Obama’s brain trust is something else entirely.
4. Fire Up the Base. Turnout in November isn’t going to be anything like it was four years ago. Still, Romney energized conservatives with his choice of Paul Ryan as running mate, which has measurably improved Republican enthusiasm for the ticket. Much of Obama’s base remains disillusioned. Recognizing that the challenge of motivating supporters would be much greater this time around, Team Obama built a campaign designed to maximize turnout by taking advantage—even more than it did last time—of social media as an organization tool. But there’s no substitute for old-fashioned excitement about a candidate, something the circa 2008 Obama proved amply.
5. Appeal to the Middle. In many ways, this should be the easiest task of all. Conservative rhetoric about Obama’s “socialism” notwithstanding, most voters don’t view him as a wild-eyed lefty, and they like him personally, which is a big advantage. The Republican Party is the one seen as more out of step with the mainstream, an image that’s reinforced when Todd Akin talks about “legitimate rape.” To the extent that Obama can project the image of being a sober, responsible president, he’ll make it easier for voters—even those dissatisfied with the state of the country—to stick with him.