Obama's Politics of Fear

The president hit the campaign trail, abandoning his pledge of a post-partisan politics and trashing the GOP. Mark McKinnon on why it’s not working.

07.09.10 9:58 PM ET

"It is a little odd getting lectures on sobriety from folks that spent like drunken sailors," President Barack Obama said of Republicans Thursday while campaigning for Senate candidate Robin Carnahan (D-MO).

An interesting choice of words for a president whose current budget is expected to add an astounding $10 trillion to the national debt in the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"These folks drove the economy into a ditch," Obama continued. "And they want the keys back and you gotta say the same thing to them you say to a teenager, 'you can't have the keys back because you don't know how to drive'."

Begala recognizes there ain't much water left in the "hope" well, so the plan is to poison what's left.  ‘Cause the numbers don’t look so good.

This from the campaigner who said: "Let's resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long."

So much for his 2008 promises to bridge the partisan divide. Is all hope gone?

“This is not a hope election, it’s a fear election,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala to a roomful of young liberal activists earlier in the week. “ Since you don’t have your hero [Obama] on the ballot, make sure you have a villain.”

A “fear election?”

Begala recognizes there ain't much water left in the "hope" well, so the plan is to poison what's left.  ‘Cause the numbers don’t look so good.

A poll this week from his longtime business partner James Carville shows that more likely voters strongly disapprove of Obama’s performance than strongly approve of it.

Disappointed in the gap between the president’s campaign rhetoric about abandoning “business as usual” in Washington and his actual governing style, voters are jumping ship. Among independents, Obama’s job approval rating is down to an abysmal 38 percent.

Boomers who voted for Obama in 2008 are also defecting and moving into the Republican column, according to Pew Research.

Even Barbra Streisand is no longer a fan. And when you lose Babs, you know you’re in trouble.

With the unemployment rate at a record high and the president’s approval at a record low, Democratic candidates have no coattails to ride, no good news to share. So time to engage in character assassination,  with a bit of mudslinging thrown in.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is now digging for any dirt it can find on Republican candidates in close races to send to local reporters. And the Democratic National Committee has launched a Web site to solicit videos of Republican candidates’ gaffes filmed by partisan plants with cams in the crowds.

Will it work? Just how low can you go in the liberal limbo?

It may not matter. The Democratic base is just not energized, unmoved by tired clichés and campaign retreads all about looking back. Blaming George W. Bush won’t help.

About 132 million people voted in 2008. And if history repeats itself in the upcoming midterm elections, up to 40 million of them won’t show up again. Chances are many were one-time Obama voters. As proof of the ennui, at the fundraiser for Carnahan in Missouri, ticket prices had to be discounted to draw enough people.

But Begala understands that narrative architecture requires a villain.  And every one of Obama’s transformative initiatives has had a designated villain—from greedy insurance companies, to big banks and fat cats on Wall Street.

Actually, that’s why conservative voters are fired up. They see the villain as big government. The stimulus didn't work, businesses aren’t growing and new jobs are scarce. So for them, every race, whether local or state, is about Washington.

So Begala is smart to advise Democrats to “ localize and personalize.”

South Carolina Democrats are heeding his advice, trying to turn state Rep. Nikki Haley's political celebrity against her like they tried against the Big Mama Grizzly, Sarah Palin.

But folks are tired of the games, and are ready for change. The mantra for the GOP might be “nationalize and energize.”

A friend of mine once said: “The Capitol needs a change. Hell, it needs to be fumigated. And as the stench and filth of...sleaze slowly oozes away, let us never forget that these slimeballs, these dirtbags, these moral midgets think they're better than you and me.”

I just may have to remind Paul of his words come November.


As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.