The 2012 race is upon us! With Newton Leroy Gingrich finally dropping out, it is down to Mitt Romney vs. President Obama, with the President holding his first campaign rallies last weekend and on Wednesday strongly positioning himself as a supporter of gay marriage. (Oh yes, I know Ron Paul is still technically running, but I’ll follow the media’s cue on this one and acknowledge that Paul is only staying in for a good speaking slot at the Republican convention.)
So what will this election be like? It’s hard to top a historic first like electing an African-American president. Add in an exciting primary with a strong woman candidate, and I think everyone recognizes that 2008 was a unique election.
But that’s not to say that this year’s election doesn’t have the potential to be just as exciting. It certainly is just as important. In Mitt Romney and President Obama, you have two men with completely different views on the economy, immigration reform, the role of government, pay equity for women and much more. We’ve seen plenty of people dissecting the excitement, or lack thereof, around Mitt Romney during the primary, but what about the President? Will the people who came out for him in droves in 2008 — African-Americans, Latinos and younger voters — do so again? Or will they, as some pundits are predicting, stay home, apathetic about this race?
My theory is that yes, eventually they will get more engaged in this election. The way I see it, the electorate is like the spouse* or partner you’ve been with for a while. You got to put in a little work, tell them what they mean to you! My unsolicited advice to President Obama follows (and hey, I think some of this could apply to Romney too):
Remind people why they fell in love with you in the first place. It wasn’t just because of Obama’s “celebrity” or soaring rhetoric. Sure, that helped, but there was substance behind that flash. There was a common goal and purpose that spoke to his supporters. There were real policy differences between Obama and McCain. Elections can often be silly season in this country. But there are real choices to make and real consequences of electing either man to office. If Obama wants to capture some of that 2008 magic, he needs to be clear about why his policies are better than Romney’s, and why his vision for America is the one they need to get behind. So far, he seems to be on the right track in terms of differentiating his policies and stances from Romney’s: His announcement this week that he believes same-sex couples should be able to wed was a clear line in the sand. While some speculate Obama’s position on same-sex marriage might turn off some Black voters, I believe that if those people exist, the numbers will be small. And among those, many will cast their votes for Obama, even if they disagree with him on this.
Tell them what you’ve done for them lately. Life is stressful. Work, kids, in-laws, all types of things can get in the way of remembering the good times. Voters are no different. Especially in these tough economic times, when millions are still struggling, it’s important to remind voters what’s been done over the past three years to make their lives better. Obama needs to cut through the clutter and talk about his accomplishments and what they’ve meant for the American people.
Acknowledge the rough patches. Look, no love affair is perfect. There will be ups and downs. But like every good relationship, you need to acknowledge them. People have some grievances with this President over issues like immigration and poverty reduction. I say acknowledge it, be honest about why something wasn’t accomplished or why you hold a certain position. You may not satisfy everyone, but people need to know that you are hearing their complaints and that they are valid (when they are valid — not every complaint is legit, as we all know).
Tell them you love them. We’ve all heard the President shout during some event “I love you back” to some supporter who has screamed out “I love you.” That’s cute and all, but it’s also important. The American people want a president who isn’t just smart and capable (though that is very important); they need to know that you actually care about them. That you’re not going to get trapped in some D.C. bubble, forgetting about the people you met along the way. This is most clearly manifested through the policies each candidate will put forth, but it’s also evident in the way they interact with people, including those who disagree with them.
Look, it’s barely May. Most people don’t really start paying very close attention to the election until after Labor Day. So I think any handwringing over enthusiasm for Obama is misplaced given the fact that he did not have a primary. That said, it’s never too late to start laying the groundwork to rekindle the romance.
* Happy anniversary, babe!
Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123