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How Obama makes his case for a second term

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Julian Zelizer: In re-election bid, Obama's no longer the maverick, but part of the status quo
  • He says economic, foreign crises made Carter vulnerable in 1980 run for re-election
  • Reagan, Clinton fared better in bids for second terms, partly due to good economic news
  • Zelizer: Obama needs to find new themes, especially on improving jobs outlook

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

(CNN) -- In the coming year, President Obama must make the difficult transition from being the candidate who once ran as the maverick -- the agent of change -- to the candidate who now represents the political establishment. There is no way to escape this.

Rather than seeking to change the status quo, to some extent he must defend it to voters. The new message that he must craft for them is important, not just for re-election, but because it could help shape how he's perceived in the next four years, should he win.

Some presidents have had trouble making this transition.

Democrat Jimmy Carter, who masterfully campaigned in 1976 as the candidate voters could trust and who didn't engage in the kind of practices that had resulted in Watergate, didn't look so good in 1980 when he was the one holding the reins of power. Facing a troubled economy and foreign policy crises, Carter didn't have a strong response when Ronald Reagan lashed out against his record, claiming that the president was part of a system that had failed America.

Republican Ronald Reagan did much better running for his second term in 1984. Up against Democrat Walter Mondale, he was able to point to an economic recovery. It was Morning in America, his ad famously said. Reagan boasted that he was hawkish toward the Soviets, and was also reaching out to them.

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Democrat Bill Clinton also succeeded in his 1996 re-election bid by focusing on the booming economy and his modest, middle-of-the-road policies, such as the Family Leave Act. Whereas his 1992 campaign was all about Clinton being a fresh voice in Washington and even challenging the Democratic elite, his 1996 campaign was about a record of accomplishment. Clinton also warned that under Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans had proven themselves to be extremists.

How will Obama make his case? The White House has started to gradually roll out its message, though it is clearly still a work in progress.

But we can begin to see the broad outlines of the campaign. The first argument for Democrats will be that Obama is the candidate who knows how to govern. The 2008 campaign may have been all about the desire to transform Washington -- and this theme will certainly continue -- but now the president will talk much more about how he was able to get things done within Washington's broken system.

Despite the controversy that surrounded legislation such as health care, financial regulation, and the economic stimulus, Obama will use these bills to show that he has tackled many of the nation's big problems, and assembled a voluminous record of legislation.

While some Republicans were obsessed with his birth certificate, the White House will say, the president was dealing with the serious issues. Even his ongoing conflict with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party will likely be used as evidence that Obama is a pragmatist and not beholden to ideology so much as problem-solving.

A second component of his campaign will focus on extremism within the Republican Party. Here President Obama and the Democrats will certainly pull a page from President Lyndon Johnson's playbook from 1964, when he eviscerated Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater as being too far to the right of the political spectrum.

Whoever runs as the Republican candidate, Democrats will warn that that party's leadership has become beholden to right-wing Tea Party activists. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan will remain a symbol to Democrats of the extent to which the GOP is willing to cut social services. Obama will contrast what Democrats see as the theatrical stunts of Republicans with his own emphasis on problem-solving. He'll showcase the kind of tactics used during the budgeting battles -- such as threatening not to raise the debt limit -- as examples of the dangers of a shift in party control.

Finally, Obama will likely point to operations like the killing of Osama bin Laden as evidence that he has an effective leadership style, one characterized by persistence and determination regardless of which way the political winds are blowing.

Whether the strategy works remains to be seen. It is much too early to tell. The biggest challenge that the president faces is the problem that he has been unable to resolve: the economy. Unlike Reagan's re-election run in 1984 or Clinton's in 1996, it is not clear whether the economy will be on the upswing by the time the election season is fully under way. The recent jobs report painted a gloomy picture of the state of the economy. This remains a huge vulnerability for the administration, as most polls indicate.

The economy will remain a potent theme for Republicans -- if they can find the right candidate to deliver the message and if the party can devise its own alternative. Through the struggles with the economy, they will hope to make Obama look more like Carter than Reagan or Clinton.

The transition that Obama will attempt to make will be tricky. A lot of the excitement about Obama has evaporated. He has been forced in this term to make difficult compromises that anger his supporters and tough decisions that incite his enemies. Many of the messages that sounded so good when he was fresh to the scene, a relative unknown, will ring hollow now that he is the person surrounded by the powerful politicians and interest groups.

Still, his approval ratings remain strong. The key will be to find a powerful set of themes -- particularly on improving the jobs outlook -- that bring his supporters back to the ballot box and turn people away from the Republican nominee.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.

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