With the general election now underway, it’s tempting to assume that President Obama has a built-in advantage by having at his disposal a campaign operation that earned universal plaudits in 2008. But as Team Obama itself already knows—or, if not, will soon come to realize—the 2012 contest will be very different from the president’s triumphant march to the White House four years ago. The key question will be how the old campaign staff responds to the new electoral landscape. Here are seven realities that Team Obama will have to adjust to.
2012 will be a referendum, not a choice. One of the best established findings of contemporary political science is that in presidential contests involving an incumbent, the incumbent’s record is central to the public’s judgment. A race for an open Oval Office is about promises and personalities; a campaign for reelection is about the record and performance of the person currently occupying the White House. To be sure, Obama can offer his vision for the future and new proposals to flesh it out. But if the people don’t approve of his record, that won’t matter much.
No more promises of bipartisanship. Obama will have to abandon—or at least radically modify—the promise to heal a polarized political system that was at the heart of his rise to national prominence, starting with his dramatic address at the 2004 Democratic convention. And because his inability to foster this reconciliation has disappointed many people who voted for him in 2008, he’ll have to explain why he couldn’t do it in a way that redirects that disappointment toward the Republican Party and its nominee.