Barack Obama’s Cockiness Problem in His Contest With Mitt Romney

With Obama just barely ahead, Michael Tomasky warns about the dangers of presidential chutzpah.

Nestor Silva, DPA / Corbis (left); Steven Senne / AP Photos

I was telling people months ago, back when Mitt Romney still seemed like a strong and resolute candidate who made liberals nervous and led the occasional national general-election poll, that Barack Obama was going to win reelection fairly easily. I still basically think that. But now I’m jumpy because everybody else, and I mean everybody, seems to think this now, too. And I get especially jumpy when I see signs that the Obama campaign is sounding ridiculously overconfident. There’s a line between swagger that keeps the other side on the defensive and swagger that just doesn’t quite sound credible, and I’m hearing a little too much of the latter.

I was reminded of this by Adam Nagourney’s article in Monday’s New York Times, bringing news that the Obama people are out there talking about how maybe they can win Arizona. And maybe they can. The most recent polling I’ve seen from the state gives Romney an 11-point lead. Of course, that’s Rasmussen, who tends to lean right, so you take it for what it’s worth. Another poll not too long ago had a 47–47 tie. But Romney appears to lead the state right now by 5 or so points.

So what is campaign manager Jim Messina doing telling the Times that Arizona “is going to be a swing state” and the only “question is, whether we can get enough people registered to put it in play this year.” I’d say that before he starts dreaming about Arizona, Obama has to defend about seven states he won that are right now pretty up in the air, or in one case gone: Indiana (gone), along with North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, and, of course the two biggies, Ohio and Florida. Other people throw Michigan and Pennsylvania in there, but my little list alone counts for 98 electoral votes, and with a couple of turns of bad luck, Obama could lose every single one of them. So I don’t think I’d be talking to the nation’s leading newspaper about Arizona in April, with the election still half a year away.

Here’s another thing I’ve been noticing quietly, which not enough people seem to be focused on: Obama’s fundraising numbers aren’t really that strong. Sure, on the one hand, it’s an obscene amount of money—$53 million raised in March—and it’s far more than Romney has raised. But Obama is several million dollars behind where he was in 2008, and is probably not on track to raise the $1 billion that some of his people used to brag about. Obama’s own super PAC got off to a rocky start. The conservative super-PACs, meanwhile, are going to be throwing tens of millions of dollars’ worth of ads on the air in late October and early November. Now I tend to believe that money, even in the form of scorching negative ads, stops making a difference after a certain saturation point has been hit. There is such a thing as overkill, even in politics. But we’ll certainly see a new testing of the boundaries this fall. We can’t discount the possibility, which is real, that anonymous millions might play a big role in deciding this race.

Finally, of course, there is the economy. If the tepid March job numbers weren’t a reminder to the Obama team that it was early to be choreographing end-zone dances, then it’s hard to say what would be. Two more months like that and we’ll certainly have a tight race again.

In addition to all this, the inevitable day will come, sometime in June would be my guess, or maybe even earlier, when the media will start in with the “Romney’s back!” stories. He’ll give a good speech somewhere, a poll will announce some results favorable to him, or, best of all, some Hollywood type will say something unpardonably vulgar about him, which will set the Mark Halperin caucus whopping with derision about how out of touch Obama and his supporters are, and surely this will expose them and rally regular Americans to Romney’s cause. The press won’t want a runaway race all summer, so it will manufacture a close contest even if Romney doesn’t have the wherewithal to provide one.

And there is a chance Romney will actually do something smart. He is not a stupid man. He might make a surprising and daring vice-presidential pick (not Sarah Palin surprising and daring, but actually surprising and daring). He might do something that suggests the presence in his body of a spine.

A poll just out from CNN (pdf) shows the depth of Romney’s problem. Obama leads 52–43 (so, above the magic 50 percent marker). But more than that, the pollsters asked people whether their vote was an affirmative vote for their candidate or a negative vote against the other guy. For Obama, three quarters of his votes were affirmative. For Romney, two thirds were against Obama. That’s really lame. But it’s also the kind of thing that campaigns exist to change.

I haven’t really changed my mind these past few months. Most signs point toward Obama winning by 4 or 5 points, and sometimes it’s remarkable how little these things change—1996 is an example, when Bob Dole never did make a serious run at Bill Clinton, because people just didn’t want Bob Dole as their president. Also 2004: John Kerry kept it close but never got over the hump. So far, this election feels like those. But Obama is only what I would call perilously ahead—a phrase his team would do well to remember.