Skip to main content

Will Obama's re-election pitch work?

By John J. Pitney, Jr., Special to CNN
updated 2:21 PM EDT, Tue March 20, 2012
Can President Obama persuade voters to give him another four years?
Can President Obama persuade voters to give him another four years?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Vice president Joe Biden pitches to voters, "Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive"
  • John J. Pitney Jr.: Presidential elections turn mostly on the big things: economy, war and peace
  • He says that in a close election, rhetoric can affect the margin of difference
  • He says that at the end of the day, reality trumps rhetoric

Editor's note: John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. He is the coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."

(CNN) -- Back in January, Vice President Joe Biden summed up President Obama's first term with: "Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive." At the time, the Obama campaign sought to emphasize the president's record in foreign policy and saving the auto industry. Last week, the campaign unveiled a new theme and sent Biden to Ohio to test it out. For the first time, Biden called the Republican contenders by name and said that they would "bankrupt the middle class." The campaign is now more focused on the economy, highlighting the difference between the president's "promoting the private sector" and the GOP's "promoting the privileged sector."

The president's political fortunes have improved, but voters are fickle. Voters applauded George H.W. Bush for winning the Gulf War in 1991; then after an economic slump, they fired him in 1992. If the economy keeps getting better and if President Obama seems to be on top of world affairs, then he will indeed win. Conversely, if the recovery stalls or if he botches a foreign crisis, then he will probably lose.

So how do things look? Although unemployment remains high, it has come down from its peak levels. Other economic indicators are pointing in the right direction, too. In the past three years, for instance, the Dow Jones has increased by about 70%. On the global scene, President Obama has pulled out of Iraq. As tough as the war in Afghanistan may be, it has not cost nearly as many American lives as Korea or Vietnam. In any case, the administration is planning to withdraw.

John J. Pitney Jr.
John J. Pitney Jr.

All told, things aren't great, but they were worse a few years ago. That's hardly an inspiring slogan, but the reality may be sufficient for the president to get a second term.

Here's the rub: Reality can suddenly turn bad.

In the middle of his term, President Carter seemed a decent bet to win re-election. The economy was doing OK, and he had brought the Egyptians and Israelis together at the Camp David Summit. Then the revolution in Iran disrupted oil supplies, hiking gasoline prices and triggering an economic recession. The Iranian hostage crisis initially prompted Americans to rally around their president, but as it dragged on, his approval ratings sank.

Although the current situation in Iran isn't identical, there are enough similarities to trouble the White House. Uncertainty has driven up pump prices, which have slowed the rise in the president's poll numbers. As Newt Gingrich says, "You can't buy enough advertising to offset driving past a gas station."

A nuclear Iran would put the president's diplomatic skills to the test. If he failed, he would pay a steep price on Election Day.

So sunshine means political victory and dark skies mean defeat. But consider the partly cloudy scenario, where the news is bad enough to put the outcome in doubt but not so terrible as to ensure the president's ouster. In such cases, messaging comes into play. It might move only a point or two, but in an otherwise 50-50 election, that margin can make the difference.

President Obama's habitual response to policy problems is to say that "there is no silver bullet." He should drop that line, since it sounds defeatist. And werewolves are the only ones that like hearing there are no silver bullets.

Instead, the classic political strategy is to go on the attack. As Richard Nixon put it: "Politics is battle, and the best way to fire up your troops is to rally them against a visible opponent on the other side of the field." For Democrats, this advice means painting the GOP candidate as the heartless instrument of the wealthiest 1%.

We are already hearing such rhetoric. For President Obama, however, there is a catch. During the 2008 campaign, he collected millions in campaign contributions from the 1%. This time out, some of them are shutting their checkbooks to him. Moreover, the rhetoric of rich versus poor can lead to awkward moments. Recently, Vice President Biden accused the GOP of not caring about the middle class. Critics noted that he made the remarks at a $10,000-per-couple fundraiser.

This kind of back-and-forth will count only if conditions produce a close election. A big margin on either side will depend largely on the economy and grand issues of war and peace. Reality trumps rhetoric.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John J. Pitney, Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT