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Obama the Negative

As the Democratic Convention begins, President Barack Obama seems a shadow, an incumbent who, while he will be hoping that Mitt the Invisible stays back in the polls, is fighting for his political life in the White House.

Negativity is a symptom of the unimaginative mind.  It is clear that the Obama campaign has, for some months, decided to attack Mitt Romney rather than extol the virtues of its own position. Obama has been playing the man, badgering Romney into releasing tax returns and encouraging advertisements with limp conviction. “Makes you wonder if some years he’s paid any taxes at all.”  Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has decided to throw combustible fuel on the fire, suggesting that Romney has managed to bypass the tax man for 10 years, a claim that comes close in calibre to assertions made by the birthers about Obama. (Imagine a contest where one candidate waves his birth certificate while the other, in retort, waves his tax returns.)

The GOP has made a sustained campaign at dirtying the Obama brand, which was not a difficult thing to do given the claims made by the President under four years ago.  Taking journeys to the stratosphere without the necessary equipment is never wise, but 2008 was a catharsis that distorted expectations.  As Ryan Lizza observed in the New Yorker, “Obama promised to transcend forty years of demographic and ideological trends and reshape Washington politics.”  High claims indeed.  A closer look at Obama the political animal would have revealed few surprises – it was bound to come. Presidential politics alters, reshapes, and tinkers with its subjects.  Men of substance fast become men of straw.  Election campaigns might be studded with poetic stanzas, but governing can be dull prose indeed.

Obama, no longer keen on idealistic mettle, is back to his true lobbying self, pushing hard and attempting to shovel an abundance of dirt on his opponent.  Senior campaign strategist David Axelrod is unconvincing in justifying the negative approach.  “If we were passive in the face of this onslaught we are facing, our folks would be unhappy.  There are a few on our side who are counselling us to sit idly by” (NYT, Jul 28). Hence, such feeble attempts as Romney singing “America the Beautiful” before an outsourcing bonanza, and tags of an aloof, distant “Richie Rich”.

There is no need to sit idly by at all.  A campaign that focuses on the necessity of various economic measures, a bailout strategy, of policies that, whilst not being galloping job producers, did prevent job losses, would be appropriate.  One takes such measures to avoid calamity, though how to prove that it worked is never an easy task. If Obama wishes to be more boisterous to the hawks, he can always claim that under his presidency, drone warfare has vastly expanded, with a promise of greater expansion in the future. Liberals can be savage too.

On both sides of the political fence, negative strategists have proliferated like bacteria.  As a piece in Time (Aug 20) tritely observes, “Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are high-minded and policy-oriented; the campaigns they are presiding over are not.” The “scorched-earth” election victory is a familiar outcome and experts such as Larry McCarthy, author of the Willy Horton advertisement that railroaded Michael Dukakis’ campaign in 1988, are in vogue.

The existence of super PACs, or political action committees, and the whirl of social media make resorting to “hopeless” negativity irresistible.  (On the former, Obama’s super PAC, Priorities USA Action raised $10 million in August.)  Remaining buoyant and optimistic during a twenty four hour news cycle is a tall order when muck is just around the corner.  Character, presuming a political candidate has one, is there to be assassinated and every swill bucket shall have its fill.

“Hope for change” has not been so much hope as “less change”.  While an administration run by Mitt the craftily invisible is an unpalatable prospect, the messages from Obama have assumed a machine-like quality.  What we are seeing before us is an attempt, less to emphasise achievement and promise, than emphasise terrifying alternatives.  A doomsday narrative here takes the stance that Romney is Bush incarnate, a creature who will assume the worst features of that nefarious administration.  Trucking in fear, however, is always a dangerous ploy.  Its currency is volatile and, in the end, cheap.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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