In a recent article, Thomas de Zengotita argues that, barring an unexpected event for Obama to show real leadership, Romney will successfully deliver the message that "Obama is weak. Obama can be rolled." Zengotita suggests that a fused image of a weak Obama and a weak America is emerging and it "fits with Obama's conduct of domestic politics, with all the situations in which he seemed to cave before the battle was even joined." A fatally damaging image indeed if it were to stick in voters' mind.
However, unless the Obama campaign is unexpectedly inept, it will be very difficult for Romney -- especially Romney -- to convince the non-partisan voters that he is a stronger leader.
Vying for the top leadership spot, both men will roll out fine speeches and other campaign theatrics. But unlike his 2008 campaign, Obama now has a record of actions that can substantiate the case either for or against him, whereas Romney's record of leadership remains what others think of him. A record is not always helpful, and perception not necessarily harmful. Yet, the enduring image of a flip-flopper will be difficult for Romney to shake off. A juxtaposition of his conflicting statements on the same issues -- suggesting rightly or wrongly that he would say anything -- would be effective in undermining Romney's message of strength.
Obama's perception problem is not where he stands on issues. Characterized as a "socialist" by the far right and "corporatist" by far left, he is likely viewed as a more centrist figure to many centrist voters. And that's a good position to have.
His main problem is the perception that he doesn't stand his ground firmly. He caves. That notion of weakness is reinforced by charges from the right of Obama "apologizing for America" and "leading from behind." But Obama can disabuse that notion with his own record.
Obama will no doubt remind voters how President Obama unapologetically did what Candidate Obama said he would do with Al Qaeda in Pakistan. With unilateral military action, he killed Bin Laden, an approach Romney publicly criticized in 2008. He will suggest that it takes courage to make gutsy decisions that carry significant political risks. He will emphasize how instances when he displeased the base in fact demonstrate a strength of character.
At a GOP presidential debate last month, some in the audience booed a gay soldier who asked a question about "Don't Ask Don't Tell." Romney and other Republican candidates stood silent. Not surprisingly, Obama seized on the opportunity to attack: "You want to be commander in chief? You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States even when it's not politically convenient." Obama will likely use this rather patronizing reminder again to cast doubt on Romney's leadership. After all, gay rights is only one of many divisive issues on which the former Massachusetts governor has taken conflicting positions over the years.
Regardless of who the Republican nominee is, certain messages from the Obama campaign will be the same. We will hear the charge that Republicans in Congress push a failed policy of cutting taxes and favoring Wall Street to the detriment of the middle class, again and again. The lack of success with his own economic policy is clearly a major liability for Obama. But he will use the presidential bully pulpit to remind voters of how the GOP could, did, and will obstruct his domestic policies. He will suggest how he could have gotten better results for the middle class if his hands were not tied by Congress -- an argument more convincing when pivoted to Obama's successes in national security, where he is given more or less a free reign by the Constitution. With the country stagnant and in dire need of momentum, Obama can deliver a real blow by painting the GOP as the irresponsible party of obstruction. And Romney, he argues, may turn GOP obstructionism into a real destruction if elected.
Thirteen months is a very long time in election politics, and anything can happen. But some things are more likely than others to occur. Unemployment will remain painfully high and the economy weak. However, unless Romney can produce a more credible plan with new ideas to fix the economy -- something as likely as a roaring economic recovery next year -- he is not going to beat Obama. Running on charges that Obama is weak, making America weak, or "leading from behind" will not take Romney to the White House.
Obama does not have much room for margins either. A terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or a scandal can easily tip the scale. But barring the unexpected, his odds for winning next November look good right now. Better than Romney's.