SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Rebranding of the President, 2012

Why Is Obama Running on His Record?

“It’s not clear what [President Obama] is passionate to do if he is elected for another four years,” writes David Brooks, conservative columnist for The New York Times. “The Democratic convention is his best chance to offer an elevator speech, to define America’s most pressing challenge and how he plans to address it.”

Addressing the DNC Wednesday night, Bill Clinton came as close as any Democrat has this year to answering Brooks: “In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s reelection was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in. I like the argument for President Obama’s reelection a lot better.”

Nicely done—though this argument only works for voters stuck in the two-party trap. But the biggest piece is still MIA: Obama’s domestic and foreign policy agenda for a second term.

Two principal arguments are being advanced in favor of Obama’s reelection: first, that he “took out” Osama bin Laden; second, that we are “absolutely” better off economically than we were four years ago.  These arguments, if they continue to be the Democrats’ main talking points, will lead Obama to defeat this fall.

U.S. history shows that the candidate who presents the most optimistic vision of the future usually prevails. The future he sells doesn’t have to be specific (Romney’s 12 million new jobs, say). Ronald Reagan, who projected vague aw-shucks optimism reflected by a 100%-pabulum campaign slogan, “It’s Morning in America,” defeated Jimmy “Malaise” Carter and Walter “Let’s Tell the Truth About Taxes” Mondale. (Never mind that Carter and Mondale were more honest, smarter and nicer.)

Obama followed the Reagan model in 2008: hope, change, charming smile, not a lot of specifics. And it worked. (It didn’t hurt to run against McCain, the consummate “get off my lawn, you damn kids” grouch.) So why is Obama trading in a proven winner? Why is he running on his first-term record?

Obama’s entourage has obviously talked themselves into believing that the president’s record is better than it really is—certainly better than average voters think it is. Grade inflation is inevitable when you evaluate yourself. (In 2009, at the same time the Fed was greasing the banksters with $7.77 trillion of our money—without a dime devoted to a new WPA-style jobs program—he gave himself a B+.)

First, the extrajudicial assassination of bin Laden, an act of vengeance against a man in hiding who had been officially designated to pose no threat since at least 2006, makes some people queasy. Sure, many voters are happy—but getting even for crimes committed more than a decade ago still doesn’t spell out an optimistic vision for the future.

Similarly, and perhaps more potently since jobs are the most important issue to Americans, claiming that we are better off than we were four years ago, either personally, or nationally, is a dangerous argument for this president to make. Four years ago marks the beginning of a financial crisis that continues today. GDP remains a low 1.7%. Credit remains so tight that it’s still strangling spending.

Four million families lost their homes to foreclosure, millions more were evicted due to nonpayment of rent, and a net 8 million lost their jobs under Obama. Structural unemployment is rising. New jobs are few and pay little.

Most Americans—by a nearly two-to-one margin—feel worse off now than they did four years ago. Coupled with the media’s ludicrous claim that the recovery began in mid-2009, Obama’s “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes” (or pocketbook) sales pitch is so insulting and reminiscent of George H.W. Bush’s tone-deaf attitude during the 1992 recession that it can only prove counterproductive.

The historical lesson for Obama is 1936. Franklin Roosevelt is the only president in recent history to have won reelection with unemployment over 8%, as it is currently (it was 17%). Why? FDR’s New Deal showed he was trying hard. And things were moving in the right direction (unemployment was 22% when he took office).  Fairly or not, Obama can’t beat Romney pointing to improvement statistics don’t show and people don’t feel.

Obama must articulate a new vision, relaunching and rebranding himself into something completely different—in other words, running as though the last three four years had never happened. Like this was his first term.

New image. New ideas. New policies. New campaign slogan.

Not only does Obama need to float big new ideas, he needs to convince voters that he can get them through a GOP Congress. Not an easy task—but there’s no other way.

It isn’t enough to simply say that Romney will make things worse. Lesser-evil arguments are secondary at best. As things stand now, with people angry and disappointed at government inaction on the economy, Romney’s “Believe in America” meme—though stupid—is more potent than Obama’s reliance on fear of a Ryan budget.

(Ted Rall’s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is This column originally appeared at’s Lean Forward blog.)



  • 1) This is not an election where anyone is saying, ‘Vote for my guy, he’ll fix the problem.’

    It’s an election where everyone is saying, ‘You have to vote for me because my opponent is so much worse.’

    The New York Times says Obama will win the popular vote, Rasmussen Polls says Obama will lose the popular vote. Both say he’ll probably win the only vote that matters, the Electoral College Vote.

    2) The extrajudicial assassination of Osama (I’ll paraphrase the official story from the White House) took place after the team put together by President Osama found him living in a luxurious multimillion dollar mansion by using ‘enhanced interrogation’ on a prisoner who had some information on his whereabouts. Osama was killed in a fierce firefight as his mujahadeen defended him, almost massacring the US Seals, but the Seals prevailed and killed Osama as he hid behind his wife, gun nearby, but he was terrified and cowering, and as he reached toward his huge pile of advanced weapons, the Seals were forced to kill him, though they were trying their best to take him alive and bring him back for a fair trial in a US court. The Seals then found masses of documents that, when analysed by the White House, had detailed plans for an imminent attack on the US that would have killed far more than died on 9/11.

    Of course, those documents are classified Top Secret and no one outside the White House can ever be allowed to see them. And this is for the very good reason that they give a fool-proof way for the terrorists to execute that attack planned by Osama and very nearly carried out had it not been for President Obama’s courageous, brilliantly planned and executed action.

    Since the President represents the American people, he can no more lie to them than a person can convince himself of a lie, or so the majority of Americans believe, and so, a fortiori, they believe the White House version of what happened to Osama.

    3) “GDP remains a low 1.7%.” This means that the US economy contracted by more than 98%, that it’s almost all gone. I believe President Obama has done far better than this.

    4) “Structural unemployment is rising.”

    That’s what they said in the ’30s, that the 18% or so out of work were out of work permanently, that those jobs were never coming back thanks to automation. Back then, the automakers made toys for the rich, and now that they could make those toys with just 80% of the former workforce, the remaining 20% were no longer a useful part of the economy. As Prof Krugman keeps saying (again I’ll paraphrase), There IS no structural unemployment, there’s just lack of demand. Obama has not done nearly enough to stimulate demand, and much of the Obama stimulus was squandered (as was all of Bush’s TARP).

    and 5) The US system remains a two-party system (speaking as someone who usually voted for third parties and never saw any impact from such votes, nothing that persuaded either of the two parties to change). And the other party is scary in the extreme to anyone who isn’t looking for an answer to the servant problem.

    In conclusion, the odds favour Obama’s win in November, with a solidly Republican Congress, and a likelihood of laws passed similar to what happened when Clinton worked with a Republican Congress to abolish welfare and also every law and regulation that had prevented a recurrence of the Great Depression for almost 60 years.

  • Some obeservations

    1) Unless and until we make massive changes in the way we hold and fund elections, we are ALL caught in the “two-party” trap. The only divide is between the people who get this, and are working to make those changes happen, and those who cling to some sort of fantasy that other actions will work (or frankly are even possible) in order to avoid doing the necessary work.

    2) The future projected has to be belivable in order to win. Obama – “We are not where we need to be, but help me deal with these tools blocking recovery, and we’ll keep working” will always trump messages like Romney’s- “I’m going to pull 12 million jobs out of my ass- and you’re not entitled to know anything more than that.”

    Racism, stupidity and Citizens United are what is keeping the race close (and not even that close)- not the economy.

    3) GDP doesn’t work in the way you’re describing. And, for the record GDP GROWTH was 1.7% (which is lousy, but the American people get it’s the Republican’s fault)- not GDP.

    If the economy had actually contracted by 98%, you’d be looking at riots. Which is the Republican end goal, but that’s another post.

    4) OBL is not an American system and therefore not subject to the American judicial system. So his execution cannot be “extrajudicial”.

    5) As I said in my comment on your last cartoon, I know a ton of people who have lost their job since the meltdown started and yet grasp the fact that we are unquestionably better off as a country since Obama took office, and are planning to vote accordingly. There’s a word for people selfish enough to vote on only the things that effect them, rather than on what is good for the country as a whole- it’s “Republican”.

    6) The people understand that Obama IS trying hard and that NOTHING he proposes will be able to get through a Republican Congress- in fact, most folks understand that there isn’t a left-leaning person on the planet that could get anything through this Republican Congress; and I don’t see them punishing him for it.

    7) You ignore the likeability factor- it favored the Republicans in ’00 and ’04, making those elections close enough to call because Bush was seen as warm and relatable, the kind of guy voters would like to go have a beer with because he was like them, he understood them. Nobody likes Romney. Nobody wants to have a beer with Romney. Nobody thinks Romney is like them or understands them.

    So depsite your best efforts and clear hopes, I am looking forward to the re-election of President Obama in a little under 60 days. And I hope when that happens you’ll cease being part of the problem and try instead to be part of the solution.

  • Some observations of Whimsical’s observations

    1) Obama and the Democrats do not want to make massive changes to the way we hold and fund elections. So, according do your logic the divide is between us and them.

    2) Yes. Lying, “campaign Obama” has very nice things to say to make himself look believable enough to win. And yes, racism, stupidity, and Citizens United are keeping the race close. If only these cro-mags understood how much Obama agrees with their positions (especially the idea of screwing black folk), then the election would be over.

    3) Our lousy GDP growth, to the extent is influenced by government officials, owes it’s lacklusterness to the corporate Dems that make up 90% of their party as well as the entire Republican party.

    4) Extrajudicial killing is not permitted under international or any other law. Civilized people hold trials. Our regime is far from civilized.

    5) There are two words for people who cheer-lead for the folks who are beating them: battered wives (or Stockholm Syndrome).

    6) Obama is not trying hard (at least if you define trying hard as trying to help the average citizen). He has not used the bully pulpit and he has not gone on television asking citizens for help. He doesn’t want it. He’s been calibrating expectations from the moment he gave his acceptance speech. He thanked gullible folks for electing him, then told them to take off.

    7) Your beer comment barely deserves a response, but I take what you are saying as “stupid people decide how they’re going to vote based on who they’d rather have a beer with.”. In 2000 that decision was “George Bush”. Yes, Whimsical, people sure are stupid, that’s for sure.

    You need to read up on some Howard Zinn my friend. Ted has been part of the solution for as long as I’ve been reading his cartoons and writing. If you think the solution has anything to do with elected politicians, you are as foolish as your writing. If this poseur wins another four years, people need to quadruple down on criticizing him from the left. Whatever it takes to move this country in a better direction, away from the current administration’s imperialist and security-state
    plans. What matters is not who’s sitting in the White House. What matters is who’s sitting in!

  • I’d suggest the spreading of breezy over-confidence regarding the outcome of the presidential race, by our self-proclaimed intellectual superior, is much more harmful to the result he/she alleges to desire, than the harm he/she continually alleges in ALL the words Mr Rall has written in the last 3.75 years.

    It’s not clear how invoking our indisputable national stupidity immediately translates into the conclusion that “the American people get” who is at fault in regards the state of the economy.

    If it is not the economy but (merely?) racism, stupidity and Citizens United that make the presidential race close, then the unnamed factors of corporate mass-media control, swing of Wall St money from Dems to radical reich and GOP election fraud/voter suppression make the race eminently winnable for Romney.

    Also, when do we get instruction on what constitutes the “hard work” of gaining functional majorities in both houses of congress? Given the “blue dog” and “rotating villain” phenomena, plus “the president can do only so much” mentality, we can expect a lot more nothing to be accomplished in a second Obama term without at least 80% Dem majorities in both the house and senate.

  • The retarded troll Whimsical said “Vote Obama …. blah,blah,blah …. vote Obama…. blah,blah,blah …. …. vote Obama…. blah,blah,blah ….

    Ignore the retarded troll called Whimsical.

  • 1) Anybody who advocates not voting is part of the problem, period, point blank. Disengaging from the system is NEVER the way to fix it; all it does is make the system fall down. And if this system falls down, something much worse will rise in its place. The answer is always MORE engagement, NEVER less.

    2) The idea that the Democrats and the Republicans are equally culpable for the state of things is laughable bullshit on its face.

    3) If you don’t think the solution to things goes through elected officals, you’re living in a fantasy world. At the very least you need people in office who won’t get in your way.

    4) Not calling for the unachievable to be done in an impossible time frame != Obama not trying. Obama is trying very hard (when judged by any reasonable standards), and he has REPEATEDLY used the bully puplpit via his weekly address to ask citizens for help. Another BS talking point shot down.

    5) “Whatever it takes to move this country in a better direction, away from the current administration’s imperialist and security-state”

    Patience, an understanding of how politics ACTUALLY works, and a winning electoral strategy. None of which the far fringe left currently possess, so I suggest they get used to being ignored.

    Or they could stop having less patience and frustration tolerance then my 7 year old niece, adjust their ridiculous election strategy of punishing Democrats and lay the foundation to get everything they want eventually and leave a better world to boot. Shame they don’t appear interested in any of that.

    Seriously, that’s my biggest beef with the far fringe left today. My grandfather and my father were liberals who fought to make a better world, and even though they knew it was likely they’d be dead beforee the changes they were fighting for were made, they kept fighting.

    Today’s liberals? “Oh, Obama hasn’t given me everything I wanted in 3 years while battling a virtually sociopathic Congress? Fuck it, I give up. I’ll be over here doodling plans for a revolution that will fail (and one that I’d never have the guts to lead anyway) instead of working my ass off so the next generation will have a better world.” Pathetic poseurs, the lot.

    I have never claimed to be anyone’s intellectual superior. The fact that you believe I have says more about your level of insecurity about your own intelligence than anything else. Your constant misunderstanding of my posts and points , if not deliberate, is the probable cause of yoru insecurity.


    I own you. Thanks for the laugh.

  • Whimsical,

    You sure have created one hell of a straw man to hang your “liberal / left” sign on. As a veteran who was conservative for my younger years, faux-liberal (making the EXACT same lame arguments as you) through most of my 20s-30s, and now as someone on the actual left, who sees things as they actually are, I can say that I have been there and done that. I don’t get how you think folks like me ever thought Obama was going to change things quickly. I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you that I have never thought he was going to change things at all (let alone quickly). So, this has nothing to do with patience. I just think it’s important for folks to see him for what he actually is: a conservative cog in the corporate machine. Nothing more, nothing less. He and his party are just not part of the solution. I don’t hate the guy – I just see him for what he (and his neo-Democratic party) is. If you don’t understand this, do some reading this weekend on “The DLC”, “The New Left”, and “New Labour”. If the descriptions of those groups define who you are, then great! That means you probably don’t belong here, and the kool-aid has eaten your brain. If you don’t agree with these groups (like most of us on the actual left), then “start working your ass off so the next generation will have a better world”. Better yet, go talk to a real socialist / leftist. I think you’ll find that they are very different than this crazy straw man you’ve created. I’d love to chat with you if you ever want to have a virtual beer – or a real one if you live anywhere close to Central NC.