"We've run probably $25, $27 million of advertising in this campaign, and virtually all of it has been positive," Mr. Axelrod noted.
That may be the case overall. But the campaign's recent ads have taken a sharp turn toward the negative, as gloomy economic news has made it harder for Mr. Obama to run on his own record.
On Monday, the campaign released a new ad attacking Mr. Romney's economic record as governor of Massachusetts.
Set to run in nine battleground states, the ad features footage of Romney during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, claiming he knows how to create jobs. It then goes on to state that during Romney's tenure as governor, Massachusetts lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs and fell to 47th in the nation in job creation. The closing line: "Romney economics: It didn't work then, and it won't work now."
Given the lousy economic climate, attacking Romney may be the only card the Obama team has to play right now. As Axelrod said on Sunday, "when you hold yourself out as an economical oracle and say to people, 'trust me, I know how to move the country forward,' and your record says something else, of course you're going to be challenged for that."
But the Obama strategy carries some risks.
For one thing, any time an incumbent president goes negative, it can wind up making him look smaller – effectively bringing him down to his opponent's level.
And coming on the heels of last Friday's dismal jobs report, an ad focusing specifically on job creation – even though it's about Romney's poor record of job creation in Massachusetts – could wind up reminding voters how bad the national jobs picture is right now. That's certainly the discussion the Romney campaign wants to be having.
Finally, we're not so sure about the wisdom of showing Romney saying three times that he knows how to create jobs. Yes, the ad uses those clips to try to dismantle the claim – but who knows, in this age of channel surfing and multitasking, we think there's a decent chance that at least some voters who aren't paying attention could wind up focusing primarily on Romney's words, rather than the message of the ad. ("Hey, this Romney guy says he knows how to create jobs!") As the saying goes, in politics, repetition is king.
Mitt Romney’s reputation with US voters appears to be on the rise. That’s the implication of a new CNN poll, anyway, which shows that Mr. Romney’s favorable rating has jumped from 34 percent in February to 48 percent today.
Forty two percent of respondents to the CNN/ORC International survey say they have an unfavorable view of the presumptive GOP nominee. And President Obama still leads Romney in this particular rating race – his favorability number is 56 percent.
But voters’ views of Romney are becoming more positive at a time when the Obama campaign is doing its best to define him in a negative light. Attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital filled the political blogosphere there for a few weeks. Now the Obama camp is hitting Romney’s record at Massachusetts governor. What’s going on? After all, this CNN poll isn’t alone – as we pointed out last week, a Gallup survey now has him at a 50 percent favorable rating.
How can Romney’s favorable rise in the face of concerted attack?
For one thing, it’s mostly people who are intensely interested in politics who are paying attention to the campaign at this early stage. Polls show that in general only a minority of voters follow the political kerfuffles of the day – such as whether Romney should repudiate supporter Donald Trump for saying Mr. Obama wasn’t born in the US.
At this stage in the race (OK, maybe at all stages of the race) larger underlying forces are driving voter attitudes. What’s happening now could be the general rallying-around effect that occurs when a candidate wins a nomination.
Presidential candidates typically get a spike in their favorability ratings in the wake of winning the nomination,” wrote Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones recently.
But campaigns just gotta campaign, and in coming weeks we’re still going to see what the people involved believe to be a bare-knuckle battle over Romney’s and Obama’s reputations.
That means more dueling rallies such as occurred last week, when Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod held a press conference in Boston to attack Romney’s Massachusetts record, and Romney held an event in front of the shuttered Solyndra solar plant, which went under despite large government loan guarantees.
Of course, both sides claimed that they were the ones highlighting real issues, while the other guys were just making noise and cheap points.
Mitt Romney has had a good month, numbers-wise. That does not mean he’s suddenly become the favorite for November – the 2012 presidential horse race is fairly stable and remains essentially tied. Nor does it indicate that Friday’s stinker of a jobs report by itself makes a Romney victory more probable. Many other important economic indicators will be released in the months to come.
What it means is that Mr. Romney has improved on the margins in some important underlying indicators and thus may be less vulnerable than Democrats believe to some of the Obama camp’s favorite attacks.
(Yes, that’s a mouthful. We’re trying to keep pesky political scientists from blogging that we’ve gone wild and crazy and overinterpreted a few poll results.)
For the presumptive GOP nominee, the most important trend of May might be that voters are judging him a bit more positively. In the latest Gallup results, from earlier this month, his favorable rating hit a new high of 50 percent. His unfavorable rating is 41, meaning he’s at a plus-8 in this overall measurement.
As recently as February, Romney’s Gallup favorable was only 39 percent. What’s changed is that Republicans’ views of him have gotten much more positive, rising by 22 percentage points in the past three months. He’s doing better among independents, too, with a corresponding 11-point increase.
What’s fueling this? Perhaps it’s the simple fact that he beat all his GOP rivals. Winners look better just for having won.
“Presidential candidates typically get a spike in their favorable ratings in the wake of winning the nomination,” writes Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones.
Other polls show this same movement, though not all have Romney’s personal popularity at more than 50 percent. For instance, a new Washington Post-ABC survey has Romney with a 41 percent approval rating, up from 35 percent a month ago. President Obama still leads Romney in this measure – 52 percent of Americans view the incumbent positively, according to Post/ABC numbers. But the gap is narrowing. In April Mr. Obama led in approval by 21 points. Now it’s 11, according to this survey.
And this surge happened at a time when the Obama campaign was increasingly turning its attention to an attempt to define Romney in a negative manner. Remember all that stuff about Romney’s record at Bain Capital?
Plus, Romney has not exactly had easy treatment from the press. There was the Washington Post report about the teen Romney leading a hair-cutting bully attack, plus all the will-Mitt-repudiate-Donald-Trump stories. It’s possible all that will show up in a future survey or be taken into account in some longer-term manner. But at the moment it doesn’t appear to be driving Romney down in the polls.
While expected, “the recuperation in Mr. Romney’s favorability numbers ... reduces the risk that his personal qualities might cause him to lose an election that he otherwise would have won,” wrote New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog recently.
The other number that’s looking a bit better for Romney is his rating with Republican women. In the Post/ABC poll, his approval rating among GOP-leaning women has jumped to 80 percent, up from 59 percent the month before.
Romney still rates poorly among Democratic women. That pushes his overall favorable rating among women down to 40 percent. But the gains among women in his own party have virtually closed his gender gap, at least in this latest survey. Women and men view him in about the same light.
Overall, the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls has Obama maintaining a slight edge over Romney of 2.5 percentage points.
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Why did Bill Clinton do it? We're referring, of course, to the former president's comments on CNN Thursday night, when he essentially cut the legs out from under the Obama campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital.
Here's what Mr. Clinton said, vis-a-vis Mr. Romney's career at Bain: “I don’t think we ought to get in a position where we say this is bad work. This is good work."
And he went on: “There’s no question that in terms of getting up and going to the office and, you know, basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”
Now, we're sure there are all kinds of Machiavellian theories floating around about how Bill may be intentionally sabotaging President Obama in order to set Hillary up for a run in 2016. But we don't actually buy that.
Others suggest the former president simply misspoke. But we don't buy that either.
Here's the thing: Clinton's comments weren't just "off message." They were a declaration of war on the message. They underscore a fundamental split within the Democratic Party that's less about Romney's record at Bain than it is about whether the party as a whole is perceived as a friend or foe of Wall Street and the world of business and high finance.
Remember, Clinton went to great lengths as president to make the Democratic Party appear more pro-business than it had in decades – supporting free trade, ending "welfare as we know it," and explicitly courting more affluent supporters, particularly on Wall Street.
Since then, when Democratic candidates have seemed to push the party back toward a more explicit economic populism, or appeared to demonize big business, Clinton has often signaled his disapproval. After Al Gore ran on the slogan "the people versus the powerful" in 2000 and lost (though barely), Clinton later commented that he thought Gore's message hadn't worked.
Obama's relationship with Wall Street and the business community has undergone a notable shift between this campaign and the last, and the president's message has taken on a more stridently populist tone. While the last Obama campaign was about creating a new, post-partisan era of government, this one has centered on economic fairness, highlighting inequities in the tax code, and the need for regulations and other policies that protect the little guy. Over the past four years, many business leaders have bristled at what they perceive as unfair attacks coming from the president. And campaign contributions from Wall Street have fallen off precipitously for Obama.
Clinton's defense of Romney – or rather, his implied criticism of Obama's criticism of Romney – may seem like a slap in the face. But if Clinton truly believes that economic populism is a losing strategy for Democrats, his comments may actually have been an effort, in his view, to save the Obama campaign from itself. By undercutting so publicly the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney's career, Clinton may well have permanently – and, yes, somewhat humiliatingly – eliminated that line of argument from the campaign's arsenal. And we'd wager he thinks he was doing them a favor.
President Obama hosted ex-President Bush and Laura Bush on Thursday for the unveiling of their official portraits, and it was a real yukfest. Mr. Obama got things rolling by thanking his predecessor for good advice, kind words, and for outfitting the White House with “a really good TV sports package.”
“I use it,” said the current Oval Office resident.
Things went downhill from there. Or uphill, depending on your view of whether such events should be serious. Mr. Bush was in rare form, combining one of his old favorite comic tropes (calling George Washington the “first George W.”) with some new lines to produce perhaps the first ex-presidential stand-up routine.
“When the British burned the White House ... in 1814, Dolly Madison famously saved this portrait of the first George W.,” said Bush.
Then he pointed to his own painting.
“Now Michelle, if anything happens, there’s your man,” said Bush to general laughter.
Bush thanked his dad, the 41st president, and his mother, who were in the audience.
Then he said, “It is my privilege to introduce the greatest first lady ever ... sorry Mom.”
“Would you agree to a tie?”
(See, that’s funny because he’s introducing his wife, Laura, not his mother, Barbara. And Barbara Bush is not, you know, meek. Nothing like an explanation to suck the life out of a joke, is there?)
The rest of the presentation included Laura Bush’s reference to a Laura Bush bobblehead doll and Michelle Obama’s promise to hang the Bush portraits in place she could easily reach if the British show up to torch the place again.
Why did an episode of “The Daily Show” break out at this simple White House ceremony?
For one thing, George W. has always been a funny guy. Opponents used to complain about his smirk in office, but now that he’s out of office, he can let loose without fear of being accused of inappropriate levity.
For another, both Bush and Obama had ample time to prepare. They scheduled this unveiling a long time ago. We would not be surprised if speechwriters from both sides collaborated on the lines. (You think that’s cynical? Come on, they take the time to poll test how voters react to individual words. Like “Bain” and “Solyndra.”)
Finally, the humor defused what could have been an awkward situation. An ex-president from one party appears on a podium with the new president from another party who complains constantly about the mess he inherited – that sounds like a situation that could get ugly fast if somebody throws an insult. Humor is safer. Even if “Washington humor” is an oxymoron, like “New York humility,” or “L.A. gravitas.”
For a day, at least, the roles in the "war on women" were reversed.
Republicans, for once, backed Democrats into a politically tenuous corner over a hot-button social issue – abortion – while Democrats cried foul, arguing that legislation before the US House was more political ploy than policy change.
The House rejected a measure Thursday that would explicitly ban abortions undertaken on the basis of the fetus's gender, by a vote of 168 against to 246 in favor. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona, did not carry because it was subject to a legislative rule that required approval of 60 percent of House members to pass.
Democrats, who previously knocked Republicans for their stances on the Violence Against Women Act and who are pushing legislation requiring equal pay for men and women, called the vote a political charade.
Democrats also took a page out of House Speaker John Boehner's book by redirecting discussion of a social issue to the economy.
"We should be talking about jobs, but instead we're spending time on this divisive issue," said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D) of Oregon, on the House floor Thursday.
But conservative groups sensed they had found a way to cast their frequent tormentors into their own choppy political waters with the vote.
"It is to be hoped that even many Members who deem themselves 'pro-choice' will recoil at the notion that 'freedom of choice' must include even the choice to abort a little unborn girl, merely because she is a girl," wrote Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Council (NRLC), in a letter to House members that urged passage of the bill. "Members who recently have embraced contrived political rhetoric asserting they are resisting a 'war on women' must reflect on whether they wish to be recorded as being defenders of the escalating war on baby girls."
While the bill fell short, its defenders and critics disagreed sharply about what exactly the measure would have accomplished. The bill would make it illegal to perform an abortion "knowing that such abortion is sought based on the sex or gender of the child." However, the legislation tilted culpability toward doctors, noting that "[a] woman upon whom a sex-selection abortion is performed may not be prosecuted or held civilly liable for any violation."
"[T]he end result of this legislation would be to subject doctors to criminal prosecution if they fail to determine the motivations behind a very personal and private decision," said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday.
The NRLC, however, pointed to language in the bill that absolved health-care providers from having "an affirmative duty to inquire as to the motivation for the abortion, absent the healthcare provider having knowledge or information that the abortion is being sought based on the sex or gender of the child.”
At the issue's core is this question: Are many sex-selection abortions performed in the United States?
The bill's proponents pointed to a study showing that analysis of the third child born to Chinese, Indian, and Korean parents in the United States "strongly suggest[s]" prenatal sex selection. However, a review of the legislation by the Guttmacher Institute, which backs abortion rights, argues that such practices are not widespread in the the United States overall and that the studies offered by Representative Franks and allied lawmakers cannot prove that abortions for the purpose of sex-selection are a significant problem even in particular immigrant communities.
"What is conclusively known," wrote Guttmacher's Sneha Barot, "is that the U.S. sex ratio at birth in 2005 stood at 105 boys to 100 girls, squarely within biologically normal parameters."
President Obama welcomed his predecessor back to the White House on Thursday for the unveiling of the official George W. Bush and Laura Bush portraits. As we watched the two men interact graciously during the event, we could not help but wonder: Where did it come from?
Not the amity. Obama and Bush are members of the presidents’ club and have more in common with each other than with the leaders of their respective parties. We mean the picture itself. Who chooses the artists for official presidential portraits, and how? Who pays for the painting – taxpayers, private citizens, or presidents themselves?
Well, presidents choose their own painters. But it’s not an easy process. Sometimes things don’t work out – Lyndon B. Johnson picked a second artist after the first produced a painting he thought “ugly” in all ways. And there are many applicants. Portfolios flood into the White House from artists, their agents, galleries, staff members, friends, and family.
During the Clinton administration, Hillary Rodham Clinton reviewed these submissions. The first lady sought advice from the White House curator and the director of the National Portrait Gallery, according to an article by White House curator emeritus Betty C. Monkman in the journal White House History.
After Clinton won reelection, Mrs. Clinton began interviewing artists, sometimes with the president in tow. Just before leaving office Bill Clinton picked the Alabama-born Simmie Knox to produce his official likeness. After seeing the likeness – which depicts a rather formal Clinton standing in the Oval Office – Mrs. Clinton picked Knox for her official first lady portrait as well.
Taxpayers don’t foot the bill for this art. At least, not all taxpayers do. They’re paid for via private donations channeled through the nonprofit White House Historical Association.
“We have for years been underwriting the cost of official presidential portraits,” says Maria Downs, WHCA director of public affairs.
This is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the historical association’s founding in 1961, there was no organized effort to produce a line of presidential and first lady portraits for the White House itself. Well into the twentieth century the commission of official portraits was a “haphazard affair,” according to former curator Ms. Monkman.
In 1800, for instance, Congress allocated $700 to purchase a portrait of the recently deceased George Washington. This paid for what has since become one of the icons of American art, indeed one of the touchstones of American history – the full-length “Lansdowne” portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
Four years after Abraham Lincoln’s death, Congress allocated funds for a Lincoln portrait competition. President Ulysses S. Grant picked the winner: a full-length portrait by Chicago artist William Cogswell. Ironically, today a losing effort from that contest is better known. It’s the famous portrait of a brooding, sitting Lincoln, produced by another Chicago painter, George P.A. Healey. Bought by Lincoln’s son Robert Todd, it eventually ended up back in the White House. Today it hangs in the State Dining Room.
Other notable official portraits include John Singer Sargent’s rendering of Theodore Roosevelt, who appears thrumming with energy, ready to bust from the stairway where he is standing, and Aaron Shikler’s posthumous painting of John F. Kennedy, his eyes downcast, against a gray background that makes him appear almost a ghost.
Presidential paintings hang at the National Portrait Gallery, and in individual presidential libraries, but it is particularly fitting that the White House itself should have the official collection, writes William Seale, editor of White House History.
“Portraits of [presidents] seem to belong there, making windows into that long history,” he writes.
We just finished reading a new report on swing female voters, which is based on a series of focus groups conducted earlier this month in Las Vegas and Philadelphia by the GOP polling firm Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates and sponsored by the Young Guns Network, a group affiliated with House majority leader Eric Cantor. All the women in these groups either had voted in 2010 for a Republican candidate for governor or had not voted at all, but were now leaning toward President Obama or were undecided.
(We're not sure why the sampling of swing voters didn't also include women who had voted for a Democrat in 2010 but were now leaning toward Mitt Romney – though we'd imagine those women are harder to find, given that 2010 was a terrible year for Democrats, and Mr. Romney currently trails Mr. Obama among women by a considerable, though shrinking, margin.)
Obviously, focus groups, being by definition small, aren't representative of voting populations as a whole. But they can still be enlightening, since they offer a level of insight that polling can't provide into what real voters are thinking.
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The two biggest takeaways from this report: Female swing voters, not surprisingly, care waaaay more about the economy and jobs than any other issue, including so-called "women's issues." And many are not well-informed when it comes to politics and government. (Example: Some participants named Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin as current members of Congress.)
To some extent, the report seems to reinforce a point New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made recently when he called Obama "the worst president I've ever seen when it comes to explaining his achievements, putting them in context, connecting with people on a gut level through repetition and thereby defining how the public views an issue."
Many of the women interviewed had negative views of Obama's health-care reform law – while also acknowledging that they didn't know what was in it. Indeed, the primary complaint about the law seemed to be that it was too big and confusing. Many also said they didn't know much about current tax policies, though when asked if the wealthy should pay more, they were divided.
And a "decent sized minority" of those interviewed had no idea what the "war on women" was.
Tthe women's most common reaction to Romney seemed to be that he was not particularly well-liked by Republican officials, both for being a "flip flopper" and for not being conservative enough. But that perception could actually benefit Romney, since these female swing voters (some of them registered Republicans) also view Republicans in Congress as too narrow on social issues and as "out of touch" with the general population.
These views may help explain why a new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Romney making considerable headway among women voters, gaining 13 percentage points in popularity in the past month, while Obama lost seven points. Obama still leads Romney among women as a whole in the poll by 11 points. But that's down from his margin in 2008, when he won the female vote by 13 points. The president will need a strong edge among women again to win reelection. At the moment, at least, it looks as if he could do a better job of explaining his policies to them.
Is Donald Trump actually a supporter of President Obama? We ask this question because the real estate mogul/reality show host continues to behave in a manner which does not help, or at least to those of us schooled in linear rationality does not appear to help, Mr. Trump’s avowed choice for president, Mitt Romney.
On Wednesday, the day after he hosted a Romney fundraiser in Las Vegas, Trump tripled down on his insistence that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States. As evidence, he continued to cite an old Obama bio from a literary agency that listed the incumbent president as a Kenya native.
“In his own words, @BarackObama ‘was born in Kenya, and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii.’ This statement was made, in writing, in the 1990s. Why does the press protect him? Is this another Watergate?” wrote Trump on his Twitter feed.
Now, the agency in question said that bio was a mistake, and wasn’t based on anything Obama told them. The assistant who drafted it said it was in error. More to the point, Obama has released his long-form birth certificate from Hawaii. Mitt Romney has said Obama is native-born.
But according to Trump, the press is protecting Obama, just like it protected Nixon from the Watergate allegations. Or something like that.
Now, the Watergate analogy is instructive, in that it proves the opposite of the point Trump is trying to make. It’s hard to manage conspiracies. People talk out of self-interest, evidence doesn’t get erased, and the next thing you know, there’s a grand jury. And that occurred over a period of months. For Obama to have successfully concealed his origins, the conspiracy would have to stretch over decades, from the US mainland to Hawaii to Kenya and back.
But we digress. The larger point is that Trump is acting like a big pain in the hairline for Romney. No, we don’t think candidates have to repudiate every whacky thing one of their supporters says, or that surrogates represent a candidate entirely, or some such. But Trump is stomping all over Romney’s message.
On Tuesday Romney clinched the nomination by winning the Texas primary. But “Trump,” not “clinch,” was the operative political GOP word of the day. By continuing to make noise about the president’s place of birth, Trump ensures that every Romney surrogate will get asked about it in every appearance. Just about.
Now, according to Byron York, the well-connected conservative political writer for the Washington Examiner, the Romney campaign is not going to play the repudiation game. If Romney denounces Trump, he’ll just get more calls to denounce other people with increasingly tangential links to the Romney campaign.
When John McCain disavowed the radical remarks of some of his supporters, “it contributed to an image of McCain in retreat,” writes York. “So the bottom line is, Romney is determined to stay away from anything that distracts him from the main issue of the campaign.”
OK, that’s a theory, and maybe it will work. But can we just say that at the moment the person who is doing the most to try and distract Romney has the initials “Donald Trump,” not “Barack Obama?”
“At this point, I suspect that Trump no longer believes in the Birther nonsense himself, and the only reason he keeps talking about it is to increase his publicity,” wrote Noah Glynn yesterday on the Corner blog of the conservative National Review.
Amen to that.
President Obama awarded Bob Dylan the coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday. Twelve other deserving Americans got the medals, too – as we wrote yesterday, US presidents can give them to anyone they want. But we’re focusing on Dylan today because he seems to have attracted the most attention of the awardees – and because there’s something about his prize we believe has been overlooked.
No, it’s not the sunglasses he wore to the ceremony. Lots of folks have commented on those. Nor is it his overall demeanor. We’ll agree he seemed uncomfortable, like a boy forced to wear a suit and stand up in front of strangers, if that boy were over 70 years old and had written more immortal songs than anyone alive in the US today.
It’s this: Bob Dylan is the first rock and roll star to win the Medal of Freedom. Ever. As far as we can tell.
We admit we’re creating some arbitrary definitions here so that we can make this statement. First, is Mr. Dylan a rocker, per se? He started as a folkie, went electric, and now has settled into a kind of bard-like phrase, where he reinterprets old blues tunes and Confederate poems and things like that. What he really is, is a musical magpie.
“There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” said Mr. Obama, when hanging the medal around Dylan’s neck.
Anyway, Rolling Stone magazine called Dylan a “rock and roll pioneer” in their story on the award. That’s good enough for us. Even if it’s a publication whose name came from a Dylan song.
Yes, King is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But his nickname is “King of the Blues,” so that’s what we’re going with. Mr. Clinton also gave Aretha Franklin the award, in 2005, but we feel safe in saying she’s not rocker either.
After them, the popular musicians who have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom are mostly from eras past. They are singers such as Frank Sinatra (1985) and bandleaders such as Count Basie (1985). Presidents have also bestowed the award on many classical musicians, such as Pablo Casals (1963) and Van Cliburn (2003).
Given all this, we think Dylan’s award says something about the country as well as Dylan himself. The tumultuous political and musical era in which Dylan became a generation’s bard is now far enough in the past to be safely memorialized.
We’re not sure that Dylan himself, as an artist, would be happy about that. “Safe" isn’t something he ever set out to be. Maybe that accounts for the slightly strained look he had in the East Room yesterday.
Of course, to a certain extent he looks that way on stage too. Until he starts to sing.