Barack Obama’s presidency was born from nothing so much as his repudiation of George W. Bush’s administration — its policies and politics, its style and tone. One of Obama’s most effective 2008 stump speech refrains was his promise to end the era of “Scooter Libby justice, ‘Brownie’ incompetence and Karl Rove politics.”
But the political dynamics for winning a second presidential term often differ markedly from winning the first. So don’t be surprised by many eerie parallels between Obama’s 2012 reelection bid and Bush’s 2004 campaign. The president may not rely upon “Karl Rove politics” in the strictest sense, and nobody would confuse David Axelrod with Rove. But Obama’s reelection route and rhetoric may bear more than a few Rovian hallmarks.
Now that Mitt Romney has won the Republican nomination, two key features prevail over the 2012 campaign — and both were also plainly evident in 2004. First, the incumbent president’s reelection fortunes are far from certain; and, second, the incumbent faces a decent but nevertheless weak challenger who is further hampered by internal problems within his party’s coalition.
Because incumbents can’t run for reelection promising “change,” and because “hope” during a lingering recession was also off the menu, the Obama campaign’s 2012 theme of “forward” — a word that often follows “plow,” mind you — was the best available alternative. That said, and substituting the economy for terrorism, Obama is implicitly if not explicitly advancing the same theme Bush did in 2004: America suffered a tough blow, but the situation could have been worse and, more to the point, under my stewardship the nation is steadily regaining its footing.