If you don’t believe rigid mathematical formulas can tell you who will win a presidential election—and I don’t—you should be even more dubious about hunches divined from a stray incident or two.
So why do I have the feeling that just such an incident—OK, make it four—made last week a very bad one for President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects?
Because they connect to much bigger problems that go to the heart of the Obama campaign’s arguments for a second term. Moreover, the time to repair these problems is rapidly running out.
Let’s take the first event, which on the surface may seem ludicrous: the Empty Seats in Columbus.
Obama semiofficially launched his re-election campaign—as opposed to the hundreds of “nonpolitical” appearances he has made over the past three years—at a rally Saturday at Ohio State University. Some 14,000 supporters filled the arena—or rather, did not fill the arena. Coverage of the event focused heavily on the 4,000 empty seats, and Obama’s senior campaign adviser David Axelrod was pressed by ABC’s Jake Tapper about whether the turnout demonstrated a lack of “enthusiasm” for the president.
If that were the beginning and the end of the story, I’d be ashamed to be writing about it. Yes, advance teams try to fill halls. The founding father of such work, Jerry Bruno, always booked smaller halls so that the press would have to write that a candidate spoke to “an overflow crowd.” And yes, the press blow logistical mistakes out of all proportion. In 1988, ABC’s Sam Donaldson reported that a faulty sound system “called into question the competence of the Dukakis campaign.” (On the other hand, given that campaign, he may have been onto something.) By itself, the turnout for Obama was no big deal.
What makes those empty seats mean more are other, more substantive matters: The jobs picture for young people is especially bleak; the April unemployment rate for workers under 25 was 16.4 percent—double the overall national rate; as many as half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed; younger workers have fared worse than any other age group in terms of recovering from the hammer blows of 2008.
If the president is to be re-elected, he is going to have to come reasonably close to his success with younger voters four years ago, when he won 66 percent of the vote among people between the ages of 18 and 29. It was that margin, along with a respectable (though not spectacular) turnout, that made the difference in close states like Florida and North Carolina. If the jobs outlook for new college graduates and younger workers continues to be bleak, the problem won’t be filling seats in an arena, but filling the polls in November.
Or consider the dust-up when Vice President Joe Biden, on “Meet the Press,” declared himself “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage—a position echoed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan a day later.
There’s nothing shocking, or even particularly original, about a president and a vice president disagreeing on this issue. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had a clear difference of opinion on it. But in this case, the rhetorical divide leaves President Obama—who clearly celebrates diversity, pluralism and equality—looking timid. The oft-repeated idea that Obama’s position is “evolving” is a couple of years old now. It will soon begin to take on the time frame of a sea creature growing legs. The specter of a president so clearly holding his finger to the wind goes beyond the issue of gay marriage—it goes to the sense of Obama’s fortitude.
And then there’s that new TV ad that the Obama campaign released. It’s a one-minute commercial, the first 15 seconds of which use TV news reports to lay out the economic catastrophes that hit “all before this president took the oath.” What follows are bullet points of achievement—literally in the case of Osama bin Laden’s death—and the conclusion: “It’s still too hard for too many. But we’re coming back. Because America’s greatness comes from a strong middle class. Because you don’t quit—and neither does he.”
There’s not anything wrong with the ad. “OK,” it argues, “maybe it’s not morning in America, but it was midnight when we got here and there are hints of dawn.” But in words and images, it looks and sounds awfully modular, a commercial that touches all the points you’d expect it to touch, but has little persuasive punch to pull a wavering voter to the president’ side.
Finally, there’s the “Saturday Night Live” skit that never aired: the one mocking Obama for excessively bragging about the death of Osama bin Laden. (“This is a special time of year,” the script had Fred Armisen saying in the role of Obama, “when we gather together with family and friends, to commemorate the shooting of this terrorist, and the gutsy decision that made it possible. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be at home this year, as I had to fly to Afghanistan, to remind President Karzai that, exactly one year ago, we killed Osama bin Laden, and that the decision to do so was a gutsy one. And was mine.”)
There’s nothing conspiratorial about “SNL” dropping a skit. It happens on a near-weekly basis, as producers reshape the show for time and pace. Yet the existence of the sketch indicates that the notion of Obama exploiting Osama’s death has enough currency to be parodied on a show seen by millions. That notion, if it spreads, could undermine one of the president’s best arguments.
Yes, it’s one week. Yes, you can bet that Obama will have better ones. Yes, Mitt Romney’s campaign has shown it’s capable of missteps both trivial and serious.
But in a campaign that is likely to be close from now to November, a campaign can’t afford a whole lot of bad weeks.