WASHINGTON -- In his Senate office, Barack Obama gave pride of place to a famous sports photo: Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay back then) howling in triumph over the dazed hulk of Sonny Liston, belly-up on the canvas.
Like his boxing hero Ali, Obama is floating like a butterfly -- essentially untouched -- thus far in his presidential prizefight with Mitt Romney.
And that is not good for anybody: for the country, for the voters, for the political parties or even for Obama and his administration.
If American democracy is to work -- if we are to prevent the blood from clotting in the body politic -- presidential elections must be real contests over real ideas and real records, informed by real facts.
This campaign hasn't really been any of those things.
Presidents do not deserve to be reelected by default. If they did, why would anyone expect that a second term to be any better or wiser?
And elected leaders need to be held to account -- pinned up against the wall, so to speak -- if citizens aren't to become utterly disillusioned with the idea that we live in a system of democratic self-government.
On the surface, it is ridiculous to say that a president whose foes have dumped hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ads on his head is "untouched."
It also is ridiculous to say that a president who has been hit with non-stop ridicule, contempt and even xenophobic hatred from some precincts of the Republican/conservative opposition is "untouched."
But that is the truth.
Look at the numbers. A year ago, the president's job approval rating was an abysmal 42.1 percent, his disapproval rating at 51.3. Today, his approval rating is 50 percent, his disapproval 46.3 -- an upward swing of more than 12 points.
A year ago, voters' view of the future could hardly have been bleaker. By a margin of 76.8 percent to 16.8 percent, they thought the country was "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction." Voters are hardly popping champagne corks today, but that yawning negative spread of 60 percentage points has closed to 17 percentage points (55.3 percent to 38.5 percent).
And of course the president is well ahead on the Electoral College trends.
He has managed to do all of this without having to seriously and substantively defend his first-term failed promises or shortcomings, and without having to say much, if anything. about what, if anything, he might do substantially differently if he is fortunate enough to win again.
Unless I missed it, the president has yet to give a detailed answer to why he has failed to meet or even come close to his promises about reducing the unemployment rate. Saying that the task was harder than he initially thought isn't (or shouldn't be) a convincing explanation.
He hasn't given a detailed answer as to why he and his top advisers, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, failed to focus sufficiently on reviving the housing market, rather than just bailing out banks.
He hasn't explained why his own administration is now saying that at least 6 million Americans, most of them in the middle class, will indeed face a tax increase (penalty) in 2014 if they do not buy health insurance -- a new estimate substantially higher than earlier ones.
He hasn't explained whether he shares any blame for the failure of budget talks on a grand compromise. And if the art of presidential leadership is to cajole your foes into doing deals they don't want to do, what are we to make of his famous charming effectiveness?
He hasn't given a detailed defense of the vast expansion of the security state under his watch -- a policy that, in effect, has doubled down on the global war on terror-based approaches that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, initiated.
He hasn't given a detailed explanation for why he didn't close Guantanamo, as he had promised he would.
He hasn't said how, even with a Simpson-Bowles-style budget deal, the country is going to seriously grapple with long-term unfunded liabilities in the tens of trillions.
I could go on.
But the real question is why has he been able to butterfly along thus far? Here are some reasons:
ROMNEY STRATEGY. Last fall, as he was establishing the overall strategy for his campaign, Mitt Romney and his team were confident that the Obama presidency would collapse of its own weight; that the economic and job-performance numbers were so bad that the president was unelectable. They felt that the slogan they came up with, "Obama Isn't Working," was so self-evident that all they needed to do was depict how bad things were and the race was over. They saw it as nothing more or less than a referendum on Obama's (and the economy's) record. They were wrong.
ROMNEY. Neither charismatic nor convincing, Romney has failed to establish himself as a credible, trusted vehicle for delivering attacks against the president. As a businessman used to spreadsheets and the cold calculus of the deal, he seems to have regarded voters as shareholders in a troubled company, who would welcome a takeover based on what the balance sheets showed. It doesn't work that way. If voters are going to have to sacrifice -- and they instinctively know that they do -- it matters to them whether the new boss has a heart and a soul as well as a sharp pencil.
ROMNEY AGENDA. The GOP candidate's action plan is so vague that it allows the president to be vague, too. And in many cases, Romney is poorly positioned to launch an attack, in part because of the radical anti-government stance he has adopted for this 2012 race. Rather than lean on the banks to write more mortgages, for example, Romney wants to lean on them less, for anything.
DAVID AXELROD. The strategy of Obama's message minister from the start has been to destroy Romney by any means necessary, and, with continuing help from Mitt himself, Axelrod has succeeded. Far from eschewing the politics of class resentment (a Clinton doctrine), Axelrod has embraced it with gusto, given the biography of his foe.
OBAMA. The president doesn't believe in the legal pleading called "confession and avoidance," in which you admit error as a way of mitigating or even eliminating a judgment against you. No, Obama is deft and unabashed about blaming others -- Republicans, Washington insiders, selfish millionaires, Congress, Europe, banks, voters with exaggerated expectations (which he encouraged, of course), even pessimistic Americans. He casts blame in a tone of regret and sorrow, but doesn't regret it one bit.
MEDIA. Obama was such a cool and uplifting story to so many in the media in 2008 that they essentially ceded ground to him that they have yet to reclaim. He ran a tightly controlled message campaign then, and has run an even more tightly controlled White House, with few press conferences and deep access only to those most likely to write positive stories. Univision didn't get the memo, and its reporters hammered the president about immigration last week. It was a rare moment. But, again, it was one upon which Romney could not capitalize. The last thing Mitt wants to do is start a debate on immigration, given how obnoxious his stance is to most Latinos.
So score another for Obama. He got stung by a bee, but he's still floating.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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