By Joe Gandelman
An old joke about a guy who dies and goes to purgatory reminds me of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
The dead guy is given a chance to choose where he'll go. St. Peter takes him to Heaven and he sees people playing harps, listening to classical music and sees serenely happy people. The Devil then takes him to hell, where he sees people partying, singing to loud music, and holding beers and cocktails in front of tables piled high with pizzas and Haagen-Dazs. He makes his decision.
"I'll go with HIM," he says, pointing to the Devil. So the Devil takes him down again. Only this time, loudspeakers constantly blare Barney's "I Love You" theme, a Paulie Shore movie runs nonstop on a loop, and he's thrown into a boiling pot of Velveeta. "But this isn't what you showed me the first time!" he tells the Devil. And the Devil then tells him: "The first time you went tourist."
And so it goes with Barack Obama. In 2008 he went tourist. To be sure, it wasn't an easy or fun tour:
Unemployment was 7.2 percent when George W. Bush left office (it went up to 10 percent and is now at 8.2 percent). The markets were in a meltdown. Republicans nominated a candidate who many Americans admired due to his heroism, Arizona Sen. John McCain, a more moderate GOPer who moved further right. McCain picked for Vice President then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who initially dazzled the press and Republican convention with her acceptance speech. McCain ran a hapless campaign. Palin lost segments of voters in droves. The press and much of America were smitten by the saga of the Democratic Party's first African-American Presidential candidate.
But 2012 is a different kind of political journey. And here's why:
Team Obama may have been vastly overrated. I've never believed it was on the same level as the teams that helped elect FDR, JFK or Bill Clinton. In the classic book about the 2008 campaign, "Game Change," it's clear that much of the Obama campaign was by the seat of its pants and they frequently couldn't believe how well Obama was doing and catching on. In Samuel Popkin's new book, "What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House," Popkin attributes part of Obama's success to the Hillary Clinton campaign's truly poor decisions, management and implementation.
Republicans today are different. Mitt Romney's campaign, bolstered by some $1 billion in PAC money, is slick and ruthless and can't be confused with Hillary Clinton's or McCain's. Romney's favorables are rising as Republicans rally around him: conservatives cautiously accept he's their guy and some moderates hope he's lying to conservatives. It's akin to 2008, when voters projected their own vision on what they thought Obama REALLY was.
Polarization. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that more Americans call themselves independent than at any point in the last 75 years — and if they are partisans, they're more ideological and polarized.
The bloom is off the Obama rose. Yes, Americans know Obama gives good speeches. Events have defined Obama both positively (killing Osama bin Laden) and negatively (the economy). Many Obama 2008 donors have gone from "hope and change" to giving up any hope about significant change — and a huge number of them aren't donating this year.
The conventional wisdom and pundits remain untrustworthy. Stories about Romney being another boring Al Gore have suddenly (for now) receded. Stories quoting analysts and partisans suggesting Obama is another Jimmy Carter are (for now) resurfacing. Conventional wisdom shifts abruptly. But the overall subtext is: Obama is an unsuccessful president.
Can Obama and, even more importantly, some Democrats who have a habit of wimping out and not voting when it looks like they'll lose, meet the brutal, uphill battle ahead?