The great unraveling of Obama’s authenticity

by Eric Shierman

Obama is running unopposed in his primary but is being forced to spend money on voter TURNOUT to prevent the bad press that would come from losing an unopposed election. Should we be surprised to learn he now struggles to get more than 60% of the vote? Three battleground states that have very strong state level party organizations were embarrassed by their primary results on Tuesday when 42% of Democrats voted “uncommitted” on their primary ballots in Kentucky; 40% of Arkansas Democrats voted for some random guy from out of state named John Wolf who has been getting his name on state ballots apparently for the fun of it; and 41% of West Virginian Democrats voted for convicted felon Keith Judd. Several prominent polls over the past couple of weeks have shown Romney and Obama in a statistical dead heat nationally, and yesterday the very accurate Quinnipiac University poll shows Romney commanding a significant lead over Obama well outside the statistical margin of error in the must win state of Florida. The most remarkable turn of events in this year’s presidential election is not how early in this race Obama has blown his lead, and blown it he has, but Obama has clearly lost his formerly signature trait, his authenticity.

We live in a time that privileges authenticity. You can see it in our culture as the reality TV show has supplanted the sitcom, cage fights have supplanted scripted WWF wrestling, and live performing indy bands have supplanted bubble gum pop stars. The progressive base that decides Democratic primaries gravitated to Obama in 2008 because he was seen as one of them. The moderate DLC wing of the party and its deep pocketed donors in the financial sector embraced Obama as one of their own too, and Obama has been trying to play both of them like a fiddle for too long.

What we are seeing in this election is a massive authenticity arbitrage. Romney’s gravitas was never in question, his commitment as a movement conservative has been. This is not something swing voters lose sleep over. Shortly after the Republican primary has come to a close, Romney is at worst looking like a centrist Michael Bloomberg, a competent executive unglued to the ideology of any party. His accomplishments seem clear and tangible, his authenticity on the rise. Obama by contrast has been forced to engage in hyperpartisanship for a year now, blatantly campaigning earlier than any of his predecessors mostly at the public’s expense. Few pundits I follow have recognized this, but Obama has had a serious disconnect with his base for some time.

With the passage of Obamacare, progressives don’t see a Lyndon Johnson like legislative champion. The base of the Democratic Party remembers a candidate Obama that bludgeoned Hillary over her failure to support Medicare’s ability to negotiate lower prescription drug prices and her close relationship with PHARMA and the medical lobby. Readers of the Huffington Post have long enough memories to recall that once in office the first deal Obama cut with PHARMA was a guarantee not to negotiate lower prices. The many pages upon pages of Obamacare language were literally written by the medical lobby, and Obama punted out of the public option in the first down of the first quarter. What progressives who read Nation Magazine remember was not an authentic Democrat fighting for health reform; they remember an authentic Democrat like Howard Dean opposing the final bill.

On trade, progressives were thrilled in 2008 to see Obama promise to force a renegotiation of NAFTA. Meanwhile, Obama sent his lead economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, to secretly inform our trading partners this was just campaign talk. The Canadian consol got a better indication of Obama’s trade agenda than Democratic voters. Under the constant advice of his economic advisers to submit the Korea, Panama, and Columbia free trade agreements to congress for ratification, Obama finally did so late last year. Like healthcare reform, Obama’s dithering managed to give him the worst of both worlds. He managed to piss off his union support, but the economic windfall these treaties could have bestowed on his reelection chances will not be felt until after the election.

On foreign policy, Obama was once the darling of the antiwar movement which seemed to engulf the left during the Bush years. Once in office, he did more than escalate the war in Afghanistan and the global targeted killing from armed drones; Obama became the first president to violate the War Powers Act, something his predecessor would never have done. The Obama administration initiated hostilities in Libya without an authorizing congressional resolution. When May 20, 2011 came and went (the 60 day deadline for the commander in chief to receive congressional authorization under US law) against the ruling of his very own Office of Legal Council, Obama made the Orwellian argument that he does not require a congressional authorization because US involvement did not amount to “hostilities.” When US Marines had to rescue a downed F-15 pilot, one has to wonder what that pilot of a fighter-bomber was doing over the skies of a foreign country. Obama has gotten away with this because the Republicans have opposed the War Powers Act from its very beginning, but the liberal blogosphere took note and the Occupy protestors have been notably critical of Obama’s hawkish foreign policy.

On cultural matters, Obama’s sudden embrace of gay marriage only highlights his awkward attempts to appear more culturally conservative and religious than he really was. I myself was surprised when he repeatedly campaigned against gay marriage in 2008. Perhaps most Democrats assumed all along that an Ivy League education like Obama’s guarantees that in his heart Obama is a secular humanist like them. They may cut him some slack for the elaborate hoops he has had to jump through to portray himself as something that he is not, but it certainly has not earn Obama any respect. Obama’s sudden “evolution” is seen as an act of political plasticity. Obama avoided fighting for a cause he truly believed in to win Indiana and North Carolina in 2008. Now that he finds himself with no chance of winning such states again, and plagued with an unenthusiastic base in the others, Obama turned on a dime. He may now have the right position on marriage equality but he no longer has any credibility. Obama was once a rock star of hope; now he is a mere mercenary.

Being a centrist moderate is doable for a Democrat since so many voters in their coalition are affluent professionals who reject the extreme positions of the progressives, but what has Obama done to win their vote? Every time he has appeared centrist, it has merely been the result of Obama’s failure to lead in the first place. Indecision is not a form of moderation. Obama creates a bipartisan debt reduction commission then distances himself from its recommendation. Bowles Simpson polls well among these college educated Democratic leaning voters. Obama’s repeated submission of budgets that ignore our fiscal problems does not. This group of voters is comfortable paying higher taxes if they know it will go to debt reduction, but Obama is losing them by failing to seriously cut spending or raise taxes.

We are talking about more than soccer moms here, let’s call them professional parents. These people manage and staff profitable enterprises large and small; they recognize a failure of leadership when they see it. These Democrats will vote for an Arnold Schwarzenegger over a Gray Davis and a Chris Christie over a Jon Corzine. You don’t win their vote by trashing private equity investors. They know private equity investors; they went to college with them. A private equity investor is a friend of theirs, and they know that the folks at Bain Capital were no Gordon Gekkos. The Bain Capital card was such a risky move that even the Kennedy Senate Campaign opted not to play it in 1994. The fact this lever has been pulled by Obama’s campaign so early reveals how desperate of a position they find themselves in as leading economic indicators show the weak economic recovery has lost its steam.

The Obama campaign even seems to have been unprepared to play this card effectively. As Obama’s sudden conversion on gay marriage was playing out so poorly in the wake of North Carolina’s vote, Team Obama seems to have jumped the gun on the Romney-is-a-Vampire line with a poorly vetted two minute TV commercial they ran in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia about the 2001 bankruptcy of GST Steel. The Obama campaign also named several supporters of Romney, identifying them as fellow blood suckers from evil private equity firms such as Blackstone Group. The first ad ran on the very night Obama was speaking at a fundraiser at the home of Toney James, the president of Blackstone. The producers of this ad somehow failed to verify if Romney was at Bain in 2001 – he was not; he had stepped down two years before. Worse, the guy actually in charge of Bain in 2001, that decided to pull the plug on GST Steel, is a longtime Obama supporter, and as the progressive blogosphere has noted, his support of Obama has been his best investment, having had nothing to fear these past three years, and little to lose from Obama’s reelection.

Probably the most embarrassing error in the ad was its central theme that came from a former GST Steel worker named Joe Soptic  who was paid to say that his company was just fine until Bain bought it. In fact Bain bought GST Steel on the brink of bankruptcy. Indeed Bain extended the life of GST Steel and those workers’ jobs for nine years when no one else would. When the facts were made clear, the true story behind Bain’s work at GST Steel represents why Romney brings to the table a stellar resume of achievement in almost everything he has been involved in, quite the contrast with his opponent.

As the media began to tear Obama’s hasty ad apart, his campaign released another one, the long awaited montage of Newt Gingrich running to Romney’s left in the South Carolina primary. Obama seems to have needed a reminder that he is not running against a septuagenarian like John McCain. Romney provided one by quickly responding with a far more effective ad incorporating recent quotes from key Obama surrogates Cory Booker, Harold Ford Jr., and Steve Rattner when they called their candidate out for foolishly making a villain out of private equity, which has been such a force of good in our economy.

Progressives might not think private equity is a force of good in our economy, but Obama needs far more than the progressive vote to win Florida. Obama has made himself vulnerable to a devastating knockout blow that permanently defines the rest of his campaign. An effective defense of private equity from Romney this early in the campaign that resonates with the many persuadable Democrat-leaning voters out there who earn their living under the constraints of market discipline will have no less a nauseating reaction than Cory Booker did on Meet the Press last Sunday to cheap shots taken out of desperation at those who take the risk of buying failing companies. What a contrast private equity investors make against an Obama administration that has taken little risk, and has failed to turn around much of anything. Private equity funds don’t get to blame their investments’ failures on their predecessor – what a contrast with an Obama administration that seems to have taken comfort under the assumption that it can do no wrong because any failure to turn the economy around can be blamed on George W. Bush. If Obama’s policies haven’t worked, he seems to think this can simply be turned into evidence that the recession was just that much worse.

The recession ended three years ago. The problem has not been the size of the contraction; it has been the lack of growth on the other side. Obama’s pollsters and focus group gurus are suddenly finding that the American voter is tired of the blame game, tired of the excuses. American voters crave someone who has delivered results. Obama is running against such a man. The more he trashes Romney’s accomplishments the more he highlights the fact Romney has some. Romney’s remarkable accomplishments are authentic; Obama’s speeches no longer are.

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change, and also writes for The Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.