For the 51-year-old Democratic incumbent, gaining a second term during a weak economic recovery proved even more difficult than his historic selection as the nation’s first African American president.
The reelection drive bore only a faint resemblance to the “hope and change” campaign that brought him to power in 2008, a time of deepening financial crisis and voter dissatisfaction after eight years of a Republican administration in Washington.
This time, Obama effectively abandoned his high-minded appeal in favor of a preemptive, bare-knuckled attempt to disqualify his Republican challenger. Throughout the summer, the president and his “super PAC” allies unleashed a relentless attack on Romney’s character, his reluctance to more fully disclose his personal taxes, his career as a private-equity executive at Bain Capital and his conservative stance on abortion rights and contraception. Independent fact-checkers judged more than a few of Obama’s charges to be whoppers, including his claim that Romney, as governor, outsourced jobs to China, and an inflated figure for the annual cost to seniors of Romney’s Medicare overhaul plan.
In its overall thrust, the anti-Romney effort was similar to the ultimately successful campaign waged by President George W. Bush and the Republicans against Democratic challenger John F. Kerry in the tight 2004 election, which also returned a threatened incumbent to the White House. That election, the first of the post-Sept. 11 era, revolved largely around national security and fighting global terrorism.
In this year’s campaign, national security played no significant role at all. Republicans were unable to go after Obama with one of their most reliable anti-Democratic themes — weakness on defense policy. The president had essentially inoculated himself in that regard with a successful gamble: ordering the military mission that killed Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Instead, the economy and jobs were the overwhelming concerns of U.S. voters, with nearly 8% unemployment on election day a slightly higher rate than when Obama took office.
The president’s campaign effort to distract attention from economic issues appeared to be working, thanks largely to the continued negative assault on Romney and a successful Democratic convention that was highlighted by Bill Clinton’s persuasive defense of Obama’s record and the former president’s contention that a President Romney would merely revive the policies that had gotten the country into economic trouble in the first place.
Still, Romney rallied in the final month of the campaign, and found increasing success in framing the election as a classic referendum on the incumbent president’s handling of his job. Romney never fully fleshed out his own plans for the next four years, but he managed to put Obama on the defensive over the president’s failure to lay out a detailed second-term agenda.
The turning point, by all accounts, came Oct. 3 in Denver, when the two men met onstage for the first time. One of the largest TV debate audiences in history magnified the importance of the event, as did subsequent media coverage, virtually all of it highly favorable to Romney.
That night, Romney, a veteran of nearly 20 GOP primary debates, gave a commanding performance. To viewers, many of whom were getting their first close-up look at him, Romney came across as presidential. Obama, by contrast, appeared passive and, in the judgment of those polled afterward, lost the debate decisively. The event provided a major lift to Republican spirits, while doing little to turn around flagging enthusiasm for Obama from many of his 2008 supporters.
But Obama closed the gap in the final weeks of the campaign. An October surprise, in the form of one of the fiercest coastal storms to strike the Mid-Atlantic in memory, allowed Obama to step away from the campaign grind and back into his role as president.
With polls showing one of the tightest presidential races ever, Obama gained ground with voters in the final days before the election, polls showed. Even Republicans said Hurricane Sandy had helped his reelection chances by denying Romney a final foothold.
But it is more likely that the steps Obama took earlier — in 2009, with the auto industry bailout; in the election year, with a decision to offer a limited form of amnesty to young undocumented immigrants; and his all-out effort to plant doubts about Romney in the minds of persuadable voters — that were more likely to have made the difference.