While President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 promising to rise above petty politics, he’s showing a more down-and-dirty side in his re-election campaign.
Obama this week tested a joke on the stump alluding to Republican Mitt Romney’s treatment of a family pet, and he declined to back away from a controversial jab at Romney by Vice President Joe Biden. His campaign has refused to condemn an ad by independent pro-Obama super-political action committee that Republicans complained was a low blow.
The rhetorical warfare has provoked anger from Romney. He accused Obama of running “a campaign of division and anger and hate” that disgraces the presidency.
“It is a lot different than Obama ’08,” said Dan Schnur, chairman of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a former Republican strategist.
Obama’s willingness to wage a more negative campaign reflects “the difference between being a challenger, and an incumbent in a bad economy,” Schnur said. “You have to get some blood on the other guy.”
The approach is unified. Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said Romney’s complaint “seemed unhinged.” Campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the president is facing an opponent who has been making assertions about Obama’s record that are “full of bold-faced lies.”
Attacks on Obama
To be sure, Romney has been on the offensive, as well. The Republican and his campaign have accused Obama of scrapping a requirement that welfare recipients look for work, an assertion that the independent fact-checking website PolitiFact.com called a “drastic distortion.”
Obama also was targeted this month in an ad by an independent group called the Conservative Majority Fund titled “Shady Past” that seeks to renew settled questions about his citizenship.
Obama’s jabs are aimed at Romney’s main vulnerability as a candidate, according to Schnur.
Romney’s “biggest weakness is that voters don’t feel like they can trust him to look after their interests,” Schnur said.
The strategy is demonstrated in both advertising and rhetoric. With Romney resisting calls from Democrats and some Republicans to release more than two years of tax returns, the Obama campaign released a television ad asking if Romney paid as little as “five percent” or “zero” in taxes, with a narrator concluding, “We don’t know.”
Romney said yesterday he never paid less than 13 percent over the past decade.
While campaigning in Iowa Aug. 14, Obama added a new line to his campaign speech. Deriding Romney’s energy policy and attitude toward wind power, Obama quoted Romney from a March speech in which the former Massachusetts governor said “You can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.”
“Now, I don’t know if he has actually tried that,” Obama said. “I know he has had other things on his car.”
The line was an allusion to a story about a 1983 Romney trip in which the family Irish setter, Seamus, was put in a shielded carrier on the roof of the car for a 12-hour trip.
On the same day, Biden told a racially mixed audience in Danville, Virginia, that Romney’s plan to roll back Wall Street regulations would “put you all back in chains.” Obama, the nation’s first black president, dismissed Romney’s criticism of Biden’s remark, telling People magazine that “everybody” knows “that’s not how it was meant.”
The Iowa trip also had Obama featuring a prop: beer. Four years ago, he derided primary rival Hillary Clinton for chasing down “a shot and a beer” while she had “TV crews in tow.”
In Iowa this week, Obama made a point of being photographed with a Bud Light in his hand at the Iowa State Fair and a day later at a bar in Cedar Falls. The campaign bus was stocked with beer brewed at the White House. At stop after stop, when he wasn’t holding a beer, he was telling voters about the beer he’d been drinking.
Romney does not drink alcohol because of his Mormon faith.
“In the end I don’t think Barack Obama will convince anyone he’s a beer person,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “Just look at his waistline.”
Obama and his campaign surrogates have resisted calls from Republicans to condemn a television ad created by Priorities USA Action, an independent pro-Obama super-political action committee run by a former Obama aide. The ad links Romney to the death of a woman whose husband years earlier had lost his health insurance when Bain Capital LLC, the private-equity firm Romney co-founded, closed the plant where the man worked.
While the Priorities USA ad generated online views and free media attention, it aired on television once, in Ohio. A Washington Post fact-check gave the ad “four Pinocchios,” its worst rating for truthfulness, finding that Romney left Bain before the plant closed and the worker’s wife had kept her own job and health insurance for a period of time after her husband lost his position.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said most of Obama’s remarks at campaign events have focused on policy, substance and contrasts with Romney on taxes, health care and the role of government.
Of the Republicans he said, “there’s always an attempt during campaigns to distract attention from the substantive policy issues when you’re losing the substantive policy issues and debates.”
Obama also has had kinder words for his opponents.
He has cited Romney’s successful business career in speeches, while questioning whether that experience is a necessary qualification for the presidency. He’s taken the same approach with Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
“Congressman Ryan, I know him, he’s a good man, a family man,” Obama said in Davenport, Iowa. “But he is the ideological leader of this Republican Congress. And he’s a very articulate spokesperson for Governor Romney’s vision. The problem is the vision is wrong.”
Obama’s edge was on display in 2008. During a primary debate in New Hampshire with Clinton, Obama drew criticism for calling her “likeable enough” when she was asked about her personal appeal.
Pitney said while Obama’s campaign engaged in negative campaigning four years ago, “Obama, himself, I think was a little more restrained.”
Pitney attributes the difference partly to Obama’s opponents then and now. He said Obama had more “personal respect” for Republican John McCain, a longtime U.S. senator from Arizona and former prisoner of war in North Vietnam. “Romney does not have that kind of stature,” Pitney said.
Pitney said Obama also is concerned that it will be a closer election and needs to refocus attention from his record to Romney.
“What’s going to matter is the state of the economy and the public’s evaluation of the candidates,” he said, “including the public’s assessment of whether Mitt Romney is fit to be president.”