02.28.12

Obama Taps Into His Inner Candidate With Autoworkers Speech

It wasn't officially a campaign speech, but while speaking before grateful autoworkers, the president sounded very much like a candidate. Specifically, Barack Obama 2008.

There are few issues for which President Obama can claim full, indisputable success. Killing Osama bin Laden is one. The 2008 government loan to Chrysler and GM is another.

So speaking before the United Auto Workers on Tuesday morning in Washington, Obama played the win card before a supportive audience of union workers in Washington for the group’s national convention. The financial-assistance package required management and unions to negotiate, he said, and for the industry to retool and restructure to become competitive. “It wasn’t popular, and it wasn’t what I ran for president to do,” he said. “But I ran to do the tough things—the right things—no matter the politics.” The crowd fell into one of several rounds chanting “four more years!”

It was friendly territory for Obama, who sounded almost like a preacher, in which to continue his pivot toward all-out campaigning. He’s building support not by uniting dissenting voices, but by drawing contrasts to his Republican opponents. It’s been funny, Obama said, watching folks like Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum try to “completely rewrite history” now that the auto industry is back on its feet. Taking a slight detour, Obama also referenced Santorum’s weekend comments accusing the president of being a snob for encouraging people to go to college, pausing to invite audience reaction.

The speech, some in the press corps noticed, was very Obama 2008: a fired-up candidate leaning more on politics than policy, sticking out his neck for the American workers and others who get pummeled by the higher-ups. The president’s booming voice above audience cheers smacked of a campaign rally, and Obama’s nod toward 2017—“in five years when I’m not president anymore I’ll buy [a Chevy Cobalt]!”—exuded campaignlike confidence.

The White House continues to argue that the president’s campaign has yet to begin in earnest. The reason is clear: the longer Obama can stay outside the melee, the more he hovers above a messy food fight—and the more presidential he looks in comparison. From the West Wing podium several hours after Obama’s remarks, Press Secretary Jay Carney denied that Obama was specifically targeting Romney, or that the speech, scheduled by government employees with the transportation funded by taxpayers, was in any way a campaign speech. Sure, Carney said, Obama has done campaign events, but they’ve all been fundraisers that were clearly classified as “political events” (as opposed to “official events”) on the official schedule.

The designation matters. Any event deemed to favor Obama’s campaign, either to raise money or to speak specifically to supporters, must be funded by a campaign or party infrastructure. Any duty the president completes in his capacity as president can be deemed official, and therefore covered by the executive branch’s budget.

The president’s booming voice above audience cheers smacked of a campaign rally, and Obama's nod toward 2017—“in five years when I’m not president anymore I’ll buy [a Chevy Cobalt]!”—exuded campaignlike confidence.

Yet considering that the president is always the president, and that he sometimes speaks to friendly audiences like the UAW, the line becomes blurry. It’s a common problem for incumbent presidents, who have to balance the demands of a day job and an upcoming performance review. But Obama’s knack for campaigning without campaigning, which is to say arguing for his reelection without directly engaging his opponents. can come across as skillfully deceptive.

Before the end of Tuesday's press briefing, reporters continued to pepper Carney with questions about Obama's campaign, and when the administration would admit that the president was an actual candidate. “Will you announce when that happens?” someone asked. “You guys set a lot of standards about what constitutes campaign activity,” Carney said, shifting the focus onto a fickle media. “There will be a time where...he will be in a more comprehensive political posture. But that time is not now and it's actually not for some time.”