Campaign analysis: GOP outside groups try to anchor Obama in D.C. 'swamp'

President Barack Obama faces TV attack ads from Republican outside groups over failed energy company Solyndra.

Story highlights

  • Republican outside groups have spent $9.4 million on ads critical of President Barack Obama
  • Ads accuse Obama of being part of "typical Washington" and engaged in "politics as usual"
  • Strategy attempts to erode public's belief that Obama is honest and ethical
  • Democrats: GOP groups can throw millions at Obama without making a dent
As Republican candidates attack one another on the campaign trail, Republican outside spending groups are taking aim at President Barack Obama over failed energy company Solyndra.
Given such easy targets as the poor state of the economy and mortgage foreclosures, why take aim at Obama on Solyndra? Both parties view Obama's ethical standards and his personal likability among his greatest strengths with voters, and deep-pocketed GOP groups want to change that image. They see Solyndra as a way to erode the president's brand as ethical and honest.
Since the fall, two Republican outside spending groups have collectively spent $9.4 million on four ads attacking Obama for his administration's $535 million loan to Solyndra. The ads accuse the president of being part of "typical Washington" and engaged in "politics as usual."
The latest assault, a 30-second spot by Karl Rove-advised Crossroads GPS, says the Obama "gave his political backers billions."
At first look, the ads seem to challenge the president over spending and the role that government should play in the economy.
But they also make a more emotional appeal, attempting to imprint in voters' minds that the Obama of 2012 is not the same candidate who ran in 2008 on the promise to "drain the swamp" in Washington.
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Put simply, the ads seek to undermine the perception that Obama is an ethical politician.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which spent $8.4 million airing Solyndra-themed ads, said, "We have a president who proclaimed he was going to be different, and it turns out he is not. He is just the same old, same old we've seen from politicians in both parties over the years."
Phillips said the administration "has not lived up to its own lofty rhetoric" and believes the president "is using tax dollars by the bushel-full to promote his ideology, an ideology that leads to cronyism."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has picked up on theme, telling a Jacksonville, Florida, crowd Monday: "He practices something I call crony capitalism, and instead of it being driven by the market and consumers, it's driven by politicians."
This strategy is what you'd call attacking a perceived strength.
A November ABC News/Washington Post poll suggested that 57% of Americans believe the president is honest and ethical. And operatives on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that Obama remains well-liked personally even when his job performance numbers are low. Some operatives say that could count for a point or two in a close race and could be meaningful in November.
Steven Law, CEO and president of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, explained that voters who are still impressionable include independents, "soft" Democrats and Republicans who voted for Obama in 2008 but now "feel a deep sense of disappointment."
Law said his research shows while this group of voters believes the president is "not up to the job," they're still "looking for signs of success" and "want to validate their decision" to vote for him.
At the same time, he says Obama "is starting to own part of the D.C. dysfunction" and these voters "fault (the president) for failing to clean up Washington."
That's where these ads come in.
"When (the president) says he wants to change rules of game to help people, what it looks like is Solyndra," Law said. "It reminds people that his interventions lead to failure and poor results and wasting money."
As the president tries to run away from Washington, these ads attempt to anchor him in the swamp.
All this is not lost on the Obama campaign. The Solyndra ad war prompted the Obama team to play defense.
Its first ad of the election was a spot reacting to Americans for Prosperity's Solyndra ads, calling them "ads (that) fact checkers say are not tethered to the facts."
The Obama campaign ad continues, "Independent watchdogs call this president's record on ethics unprecedented" and "President Obama kept his promise to toughen ethics rules and strengthen America's energy economy."
Despite this seemingly defensive posture, Democratic operatives are adamant the president's record on ethics -- dating back to his days in the Illinois Legislature -- makes him unshakable on this count and Republican groups can throw millions at him without making a dent.
Expect those millions to flow. The groups plan to keep their messaging -- they call it "advocacy" -- going. Together, Americans for Prosperity, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS raised more than $100 million in 2011.