The Campaign Realism Problem

During campaigns, candidates like to talk about all the things they want to do see happen under their watch. While governing, the realm of legislative possibility is severely restricted by the makeup of the actual House and Senate that the president needs to deal with in order to actually sign any legislation that can at least partially match up with what was promised in the campaign. And so, we get the spectacle of 18 months of talking about a specific legislative agenda followed by executive-legislative wrangling and then finally some compromise that reaches the president’s desk (see: stimulus and health care reform).

But this time around, Obama may have plenty of ideas he would like to see turned into law during his second term, but the main focus of his campaign has been twofold: recognizing and protecting the achievements of the firm term and relentless attacks on Romney’s legislative agenda and record. Many conservatives are focusing on the second part of the president’s message and saying that it overwhelms any positive plan he is putting forth, and that this will doom his to defeat. Jay Cost is the latest to make this argument:

There is no vision from Team Obama about how to fix this mess, beyond these warmed-over proposals that made up the core of the (broadly unpopular) stimulus bill. What happens in a second term with the economy? Do we just keep limping on, while the president continually blames his predecessor, pushes small ball (and obviously poll-tested) proposals, and tries to pump more money into Democratic constituencies like the teachers and craft unions? I understand the political need to blame Bush, but there has to be more.

Even putting aside other things that Obama has talked about wanting to get done in his second term (immigration reform, tax reform, etc), one can see what Cost is getting at in his description of what Obama is centering his campaign around.

On the other hand, perhaps small-ball, poll tested initiatives and unending partistan warfare over Obama’s record is exactly what we can expect with four more years of Obama, no matter what he talks about during his reelection bid.

After all, the chances of Obama getting a workable legislative majority to go along with four more years in office are fairly slim, meaning that even if he had transformative ideas that Cost would not dismiss as attempts to “pump more money into Democratic constituencies,” they would likely never come to fruition or even come under serious debate.

So, for whatever reason, Obama is being pretty realistic about what to expect. And there is nothing wrong with a mostly negative reelection effort, despite what many conservatives seem to imply: if Obama can convince the country that they would be worse off under Romney, more power to him. But it does not exactly make for the most inspiring — or compelling — campaign season.