Everything was going great for Barack Obama until about 9:04 on the night of Oct. 3, when Mitt Romney startled everybody by refusing to live up to his caricature as The Worst Candidate Ever.
Romney’s late-game comeback – an unexpected assertion of presidential competence in front of 67 million viewers – robbed Obama of his momentum and forced the president’s team to make a subtle yet significant change to their closing argument in the critical last two weeks of the 2012 campaign.
Obama’s Chicago-based brain trust had intended to highlight four years of “solid, steady progress” in the final days of the race, several Democrats told POLITICO, with a healthy dose of hammering Romney – a strategy that had given Obama a lead going into that fateful first debate.
Instead, the pressure is now on Obama to prove himself – and oh so late in the game. That led his campaign on Tuesday to release a detailed, bullet-point plan for his second term – a formal agenda his team had long resisted despite appeals from the likes of Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and James Carville, and an army of basic-cable liberals, who said the president needed to spend less time cutting down Romney and more time elevating himself.
“Had to do it … It’s all about earning people’s votes,” emailed a Democrat close to the campaign when the plan was unveiled hours after the third and final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla.
Obama will keep slamming Romney as the campaign comes to an end. Drawing “the contrast” as Obama’s team calls it, is still the campaign’s engine.
Obama officials publicly claim the plan was in the works all along and doesn’t represent a major change. But many Democrats and observers see the Tuesday messaging switch as proof Obama leaned too heavily for too long on a negative “Hit Mitt” strategy, at the expense of a sustained push to convince skeptical voters the president deserves another four years.
“The Obama organization did the single best job of destroying a candidate I have ever seen in my career, from May to September,” said pollster Peter Brown, who conducts the Quinnipiac University poll of battleground states.
“But that all went out the window when Romney showed people that the caricature of him as a clown was false. … Now he’s got to make the case for himself. If he was ahead now, my guess is he wouldn’t have taken the chance of putting all of this out there.”
People close to the president wouldn’t say why he hadn’t put out a compact, comprehensible list sooner – a task that is the policy equivalent of making sure the candidate’s name is spelled correctly on yard signs.
But several Democrats behind the scenes said Obama was reluctant to be hemmed in by a campaign-year agenda if he were reelected – and he saw no need to put a detailed plan on the table earlier this year when Romney was squirming.