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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Four Little Words

Why the Obama campaign is suddenly so worried.

What's the difference between a calm and cool Barack Obama, and a rattled and worried Barack Obama? Four words, it turns out.

"You didn't build that" is swelling to such heights that it has the president somewhere unprecedented: on defense. Mr. Obama has felt compelled—for the first time in this campaign—to cut an ad in which he directly responds to the criticisms of his now-infamous speech, complaining his opponents took his words "out of context."

That ad follows two separate ones from his campaign attempting damage control. His campaign appearances are now about backpedaling and proclaiming his love for small business. And the Democratic National Committee produced its own panicked memo, which vowed to "turn the page" on Mr. Romney's "out of context . . . BS"—thereby acknowledging that Chicago has lost control of the message.

The Obama campaign has elevated poll-testing and focus-grouping to near-clinical heights, and the results drive the president's every action: his policies, his campaign venues, his targeted demographics, his messaging. That Mr. Obama felt required—teeth-gritted—to address the "you didn't build that" meme means his vaunted focus groups are sounding alarms.

The obsession with tested messages is precisely why the president's rare moments of candor—on free enterprise, on those who "cling to their guns and religion," on the need to "spread the wealth around"—are so revealing. They are a look at the real man. It turns out Mr. Obama's dismissive words toward free enterprise closely mirror a speech that liberal Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren gave last August.

Ms. Warren's argument—that government is the real source of all business success—went viral and made a profound impression among the liberal elite, who have been pushing for its wider adoption. Mr. Obama chose to road-test it on the national stage, presumably thinking it would underline his argument for why the wealthy should pay more. It was a big political misstep, and now has the Obama team seriously worried.

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