A crowd watches as President Obama walks by on his way to board Marine One… (Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — The stock market plunge highlights a challenge President Obama faces in his quest for a second term: With a recovery that is anemic at best, he probably will be forced to run on something other than his economic record.
Already, the outlines of a hard-nosed reelection campaign are emerging. Using surrogates to distance the president from the effort, his team is pushing back hard against criticism of his handling of the economy. At the same time, aides are developing lines of attack against potential GOP opponents.
"It's not going to be 2008 'Yes, we can' anymore. I think it's going to be slash-and-burn," said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. "We have an embattled incumbent who doesn't have much hope of improving his standing except by point of comparison with his Republican opponent. It's going to be a very different kind of election that's going to be brutal, to be honest."
Chris Lehane, a California-based strategist with experience in Democratic presidential contests, said: "Every campaign has a negative and a positive story line. The campaigns that win can impose their will, in terms of protecting their positive brand, while also driving their opponent's negative brand."
Obama's political advisors reject the suggestion that the president will run a scorched-earth campaign. Instead, one of those advisors said, they will present a "very aggressive contrast" with the GOP nominee.
Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman, put the contrast the campaign hopes to portray this way: "A president that prevented another depression, stood up to special interests to pass Wall Street reform, and is fighting to create the jobs of the future," versus a Republican nominee who supports policies that "would eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs and erode critical programs like Social Security."
However the effort is characterized, the results already are visible on the campaign trail in repeated forays against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republicans' nominal front-runner. The Obama campaign's efforts against Romney have been unusually intense given that the GOP primaries do not even begin for more than five months.
Case in point: Romney's recent stop at a vacant shopping center in North Hollywood. Romney's campaign designed the event to illustrate his claim that Obama's policies have only made the recession worse, but it quickly became a magnet for the president's response machine.
Hours before Romney's arrival, the Democratic National Committee rounded up local reporters for a conference call with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who delivered a scripted critique of Romney's subpar job-creation record as governor.
After Romney's brief campaign appearance at the mall had ended, local Democratic officials were at the scene, telling reporters that many of the businesses there had been closed during George W. Bush's administration. The Democratic rebuttal became part of TV and newspaper accounts of the event.
Targeted attacks immediately before and after an opposing candidate's event — known as "bracketing" — are a timeworn campaign tactic. But the Obama team has applied it virtually everywhere Romney has gone in recent months.
Romney's campaign advisors regard the attention as a backhanded compliment, confirmation of his status as his party's front-runner. "It's clear that the White House has Mitt Romney on the brain," said Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman.
As with any negative campaign, the goal is to undermine the challenger's reputation and, as much as possible, shift the focus of the election away from the incumbent's shortcomings.
"People judge an incumbent president on the basis of how well he's performed, and they've consistently told us over the course of Obama's first term that his most important job has been to fix the economy. If people feel no progress has been made, it'll be difficult for him to be reelected," said independent pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
But if the president's challenger is seen as "too risky," he added, "then an incumbent who has performance problems could possibly squeak by."
Working mainly behind the scenes, the Obama campaign, which does not need to worry about a primary challenge, is already at work planting seeds of doubt about his potential opponent, whomever that may be.
Dozens of staffers, including a rapid-response team at party headquarters in Washington and researchers at the president's Chicago campaign office, monitor statements by leading Republican candidates and strike back, often within minutes. Their work is supplemented by a new Washington-based "super PAC," American Bridge 21st Century. It employs 15 video "trackers" who record Republican campaign events around the country and ship the results to a war room in Washington that employs 25 people and can provide the footage to other pro-Obama organizations.