NEW YORK -- Two top campaign advisers to President Barack Obama hit the media circuit this week to help shape a general election narrative against potential GOP challengers -- still weeks before the Iowa Caucus and perhaps months before the Republican nominee has been chosen.
While aides to past reelection campaigns have typically waited until it became clear who they'd face in the general election before taking direct aim in the media, Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary who is now advising Obama's reelection effort, explained to The Huffington Post that "no one thought it made sense to let the Republicans attack the President for months and months without some fact checking and pushback."
For the past several days, Gibbs and chief strategist David Axelrod have tried to define former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, long considered by Team Obama as the most likely nominee, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is now leading in most primary polls. On CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday, Gibbs described Romney as "a political gymnast of the highest order," who will "say virtually anything to get elected to any office." Across the dial, Axelrod told NBC's David Gregory that "when it comes to his public character, [Romney] doesn't have a core," echoing past criticism from White House senior adviser David Plouffe.
The campaign turned its attention to Gingrich Monday, with Axelrod calling him the "Godfather of Gridlock" in the morning on MSNBC and again at night on CNN. Gibbs brought up Romney's "trust issue" on Tuesday's "Morning Joe" and told "Today" co-host Ann Curry on Wednesday that he doesn't "think voters are going to like, quite frankly, either one of them." That afternoon, Axelrod told reporters at a forum hosted by Bloomberg View that Romney belongs in the "martini party set" and made a crack about Gingrich's credit line at Tiffany's.
On Thursday, Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt, who regularly fires off tweets digging into Romney's rhetoric and record, responded to a new ad targeting President Obama's job creation record by saying that Romney would "put Wall Street profit ahead of middle class security."
Team Obama shouldn't be expected to sleep through the Republican primary, and past reelection campaigns have surely used the period leading up to the Iowa caucuses to stock up on opposition research, raise money, talk to reporters, and plot a general election strategy. But some veteran political reporters and operatives told The Huffington Post that the Obama campaign's decision to engage so publicly with specific candidates -- along with its aggressive pushback through the news media and social media -- is a risky move for an incumbent president's campaign which could otherwise try staying above the primary fray, and let the candidates tear each other apart, well into spring 2012.
Washington Post reporter Dan Balz said the Obama campaign's "focus on Romney is earlier than we've seen in the past."
"The Clinton team went after Dole in the spring of 1996 with a lot of DNC ads and did a good job of damaging him quickly, but that was after it was very clear he would be the nominee," Balz said. "In '04, the Bush folks jumped on Kerry within days of him effectively wrapping up the nomination." (Kerry became the Democratic nominee in March 2004).
Balz pointed out that Howard Dean still looked likely to become the Democratic nominee at this point eight years ago, "so there was no urgency for the Bush team to jump then." He continued: "What's interesting here is that the Obama folks have consistently kept their eye on Romney, no matter what else is happening in the GOP race."
Jake Tapper, chief White House correspondent for ABC News, said the campaign's strategy of directly taking on Romney, and more recently Gingrich, during the primary is "very surprising."
"Usually, the standard is for the president, or his political apparatchiks, to kind of dismiss the entire field as a bunch of whatevers," Tapper said. "This is unusual."
Tapper also pointed out that the strategy comes with some risk, given that a lot of money and energy may be spent on a specific candidate, like Romney, who does not ultimately end up getting the nomination.
But others may see that scenario as a reward for the White House, presuming that Democrats would rather Obama face Gingrich or another non-Romney candidate in the general election. Some Democrats told Politico Friday that they believe the charges of flip-flopping leveled at Romney by the Obama campaign and their Democratic allies have cut his chances of winning the nomination.
While White House Press Secretary Jay Carney continues taking administration-related questions from the briefing room, LaBolt handles campaign requests out of Chicago and regularly takes Romney to task on Twitter.
The Romney campaign says he's "obsessed" with them, but LaBolt told The Huffington Post that the campaign jumps into the fray in order to set the record straight, like when Romney aired a misleading ad suggesting Obama had said he didn't want to discuss the economy during the 2012 election, when he was in fact quoting an aide to John McCain in 2008.
"When there's an egregious attack like that, it's our obligation to weigh in and get the facts out there," LaBolt said.
In addition to using social media, LaBolt pointed out that the campaign has built tools like Attack Watch, which responds quickly to misleading attacks on its website.
While LaBolt makes a good argument for the need to push back against falsehoods, several veterans of the most recent presidential reelection campaign remain skeptical of the merits of focusing so much on potential nominees before the primary has run its course.
"Doesn't make sense to me that they were engaging Romney before the nomination," Mark McKinnon, chief media advisor for President George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, said in an email. "Makes even less sense that they are engaging Newt. They need Gingrich to be the nominee. So why attack him now unless it's some brilliant double reverse strategy that they are attacking Newt so that Republicans will bow up and support him because Democrats are attacking him. In which case, they are brilliant."
Scott Stanzel, national press secretary for Bush's 2004 campaign, argues the reelection campaign would be wise to avoid the primary media circus. "They could be, in effect, drawing more attention to Mitt Romney with their constant rebuttals and attacks on him," Stanzel said. "They have to be careful, from a political practioner standpoint, that they aren't drawing attention to the Republican critique of Obama's record."
"We did not spend a lot of time responding to the attacks we saw from John Kerry, John Edwards or any of the other Democratic candidates for president," Stanzel recalled, adding that the campaign "left the response to those charges, and the criticism of the Democratic candidates, up to the Republican National Committee."
The Democratic National Committee is doing its share for the Obama campaign attacking Romney's character alongside with super PACs like Bill Burton's Priorities USA. Burton, who served as national press secretary for Obama's 2008 race, doesn't buy the notion that the Bush campaign wasn't focused on potential general election candidates in the fall of 2003 -- he just thinks they weren't so public about it.
"For starters, any reporter covering the 2004 campaign will tell you that it is absolutely untrue that the Bush White House wasn't engaged in the conversation about the reelection at this point in the race," Burton said. "Maybe the candidates weren't addressed on the record, but they were certainly spending a great deal of time talking about Kerry and Dean."
"The fecklessness of this batch of GOP contenders have left Democrats no choice but to engage aggressively in the race," Burton added.