Are Obama's campaign aides fooling themselves?

Pete Souza / White House

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  • The picture Heilemann draws is of campaign managers whose assumptions have been proved wrong. @MichaelBarone

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  • “A lot of people like the way #Obama has governed less than they liked the idea of #Obama governing.” @MichaelBarone

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  • Bush was running in a 10-year period in which partisan preferences were very steady. We’re in a different setting now.

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"Axelrod is endeavoring not to panic." So reads a sentence in John Heilemann's exhaustive article on Barack Obama's campaign in this week's New York magazine.

Heilemann is a fine reporter and was co-author with Time's Mark Halperin of a best-selling book on the 2008 presidential campaign. While his sympathies are undoubtedly with Obama, he does a fine job of summarizing the arguments and tactics of both sides.

And he's capable of directing snark at both candidates. Samples: Romney "seems to suffer a hybrid of affluenza and Tourette's." "A cynic might say that the liberation Obama feels is the freedom from, you know, actually governing."

Heilemann's article is well-sourced. It's based on interviews with David Axelrod, the former White House aide now back in Chicago, David Plouffe, the 2008 manager now in the White House, and Jim Messina, the current campaign manager.

The picture Heilemann draws is of campaign managers whose assumptions have been proved wrong and who seem to be fooling themselves about what will work in the campaign.

One assumption that has been proved wrong is that the Obama campaign would raise $1 billion and that, as in 2008, far more money would be spent for Democrats than Republicans.

Heilemann reports the campaign managers' alibis. Obama has given donors "shabby treatment," he writes. This of a president who has attended more fundraisers than his four predecessors combined.

As for the Obama-authorized super-PAC being $90 million short of its $100 million goal, well, it was late getting started and some money givers don't like negative ads.

A more plausible explanation is that big Democratic donors don't trust the political judgment of super-PAC head Bill Burton -- who was passed over for promotion to White House press secretary -- the way big Republican donors trust Karl Rove.

Here's another: A lot of people like the way Obama has governed less than they liked the idea of Obama governing.

A second assumption is that the Obama managers "see Romney as a walking, talking bull's-eye" and have "contempt for his skills as a political performer."

You can find some basis for this in Romney's performance in the primaries. But you can also find evidence to the contrary. In my own experience as a political consultant, I found it dangerous to assume your opponents will screw up. Sometimes they don't.

As for fooling themselves, I have to wonder whether the Obama people were spoofing Heilemann at points. He quotes Plouffe as saying. "Let's be clear what [Romney] would do as president," and then summarizes: "Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He's far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage."

These claims don't seem sustainable to me. No one seriously thinks there's any likelihood of criminalizing abortion or banning contraception. Romney brushed off that last one in a debate.

Nor is there any chance an anti-same-sex marriage amendment would get the two-thirds it needs in Congress to go to the states. Opposing legalization of illegal immigrants is not a clear vote-loser, particularly now that, the Pew Hispanic Center reports, a million have left the country.

Also, the Obama managers' explanations about why it's really not inconsistent to attack Romney as a flip-flopper during the primaries and then flip-flop to attack him for "extreme right" views do not ring true. It sounds as "thoroughly tactical" as Axelrod's description of Romney.

Heilemann quotes Messina as saying Obama has "a distinct advantage" in battleground states. He envisions the campaign as a long, hard slog through the target states, like George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004.

That's what it looks like now. But there are other possibilities. Bush was running in a 10-year period in which partisan preferences were very steady. In five straight House elections from 1996 to 2004, each party got about the same percentage of the popular vote every time.

We're in a different setting now. Obama won the popular vote by 7 points in 2008. Republicans won the House popular vote by 7 points in 2010. Many more voters have been moving around than had been eight years ago.

The strategy of rallying currently unenthusiastic core Obama voters -- Hispanics, young voters, unmarried women -- risks alienating others who may be more moveable than their counterparts were in 2004. The Obama managers seem unaware of that risk. Could be a problem for them.

Michael Barone is a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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