Last weekend, Bill Clinton was the featured guest at two fundraisers which brought in a reported $2 million for President Obama's 2012 campaign.
As the Daily Caller put it, "Clinton gives Obama $2 million worth of faint praise."
Although the current president has substantially outraised Mitt Romney in the early part of the campaign season -- to be expected of an incumbent facing a field of hopefuls prior to the determination of the eventual challenger -- Obama's fundraising pace is down dramatically from 2008. Given Obama's rhetorical war against the "rich," the slowest economic recovery in modern American history, and an unpopular piece of "signature" legislation that has a real chance of being found unconstitutional, the downturn in his campaign contributions should not be a surprise. Remarkably, even the New York Times understands it.
The president's basic re-election theme was demonstrated in short sentences during the fundraisers: Bill Clinton said that Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney "basically wants to do what they did before, on steroids, which will get you the same consequences you got before, on steroids." President Obama said that he, working with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have "spent the past three-and-a-half years cleaning up after other folks' messes."
In other words, "vote for me because what I'm doing is better than what they did -- which is what you should expect they will do again."
But that is a difficult argument to sustain. People's assessment of today and memory of last week are usually clearer than their memory of a few years ago, especially because across much of America the economy does not feel much better than it did a few years ago. If you haven't been working in a bailed-out industry like banking or a bailed-out company like GM -- after all, who wouldn't do well with billions of dollars of Other People's Money? -- and you don't own a lot of stocks and bonds, the world feels far from rosy. As we put it in my business, "the trend is your friend" (in this case, Romney's friend and Obama's challenge.)
More damaging for Obama is that while the recession and financial turmoil did indeed begin under President Bush, voters in 2008 had some sense of hope for the future, that things would get better, not least because of Obama's famous campaign slogan of "hope and change." Now, despite that promise, current economic indicators and optimism about the future are stagnant, and uncertainty about the next regulatory or tax shoe to drop keeps potential job creators on the sidelines. (Or more precisely, certainty that there will be another shoe to drop as long as this man is in charge.)
As Donald Sutherland, playing the president in the movie The Hunger Games noted ominously, "Hope is the only thing stronger than fear." If he is correct, and America's 2008 election results suggest some political validity in his statement, then few things will be more powerful in 2012 than the disappointment of a hope unfulfilled. Indeed, fear of trying someone new, especially someone who is so carefully running as not the usual Republican, not the second coming of George W. Bush (even if also not the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan), will not be the motivating force that the Obama letdown is.
A recent Gallup poll shows that the percentage of American adults who feel that they "have enough money to live comfortably" has reached a new low of 60 percent, down from 75 percent in 2002. The decline occurs across income groups, though college graduates do not feel as pessimistic as those with less educational achievement.
Sentiment among Republicans and Independents has dropped more than among Democrats, though the Democrat results still matched the prior low (registered strangely in 2005, implying that political partisans tend to feel worse when their team is not in charge.)
A dangerous aspect of the Gallup numbers for Obama's reelection prospects is the large and persistent decline in perceived financial well-being among Independent voters. At 57 percent, the current reading among this critical segment of the electorate is by far the lowest registered among any of the three political groupings at any time during the past decade. This is a giant flashing neon warning sign for Barack Obama -- and there is little he can to do about it.
The lack of economic confidence despite modestly lower unemployment rates and modestly higher consumer spending is representative of the fact that Barack Obama instills in many Americans the opposite of hope: the sense that we are being governed by a man (and his various henchmen and henchwomen) who, whether due to ideology or incompetence, cannot or will not implement the pro-growth policies needed to bring us out of our current economic morass.
Instead, he spends his time pitting Americans against each other: The "rich" against the middle class, Republicans against women, college students against everyone (and against responsibility for their own educations), and that's just in the past few weeks. It is anything but a message of hope; it is a message of fear. Fortunately, it's not working, in part because Americans are not people who want to feel fearful and in part because we know that such a message is no part of a solution.
In 2008, Barack Obama understood the Hunger Games president's wisdom. In 2012, he has abandoned it, because his dismal record leaves him little choice.
Campaigning with President Clinton is necessary for Barack Obama who is having trouble appealing to big-check-writers on his own. After all, at this same point in his presidency, Bill Clinton had a 56 percent approval rating while Obama is mired at 48 percent, below the significant 50 percent threshold he has not been above for a year. But while Bill Clinton was deemed "the first black president," he's not actually the guy on the ballot in November, and approval ratings points are not tradable assets.
Hitting the campaign trail with Slick Willie poses its own risks for President Obama, reminding people that he, unlike Clinton, is presiding over a terrible economy. Obama, unlike Clinton, is not even pretending to look for areas of policy cooperation with Republicans (such as on welfare reform). And for a president whose primary electoral hope is his personal likeability, standing next to the relatively warm and jovial Clinton, our current president's persistent coolness may remind voters that Obama is in fact not that likeable.
When it comes to enlisting the help of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is doing what he has to do. The fact that he has to do it shows a recognition of his reelection campaign's fundamental weakness. If Barack Obama had a James "It's the economy, stupid" Carville instead of a David "Divide and Conquer" Axelrod to advise him, he might be reminded daily of Donald Sutherland's Hunger Games wisdom. But then it's hard to campaign on hope when fear is really all you have left to work with.