Mitt Romney’s momentum in the polls may have stalled, but that hasn’t stopped the first round of “what went wrong” stories on the Obama campaign, particularly as regards the message it has chosen to run on. This is not necessarily an overreaction--when the race is as close as this one now appears to be, there’s justification in holding each side to close account for what could’ve been done differently or better. However, I’m not convinced that there’s a case to be made for a major strategic failure on Chicago’s messaging front. 

First, let’s take up the intriguing new argument by Matt Bai that Obama was ill-served by taking the advice of Bill Clinton--a notion that, if true, would be richly ironic given how much Obama has been relying on Clinton in the past few months. Bai writes:

You may recall that last spring, just after Mr. Romney locked up the Republican nomination, Mr. Obama’s team abruptly switched its strategy for how to define him. Up to then, the White House had been portraying Mr. Romney much as George W. Bush had gone after John Kerry in 2004 – as inauthentic and inconstant, a soulless climber who would say anything to get the job.
But it was Mr. Clinton who forcefully argued to Mr. Obama’s aides that the campaign had it wrong. The best way to go after Mr. Romney, the former president said, was to publicly grant that he was the “severe conservative” he claimed to be, and then hang that unpopular ideology around his neck. In other words, Mr. Clinton counseled that independent voters might forgive Mr. Romney for having said whatever he had to say to win his party’s nomination, but they would be far more reluctant to vote for him if they thought they were getting the third term of George W. Bush. Ever since, the Obama campaign has been hammering Mr. Romney as too conservative, while essentially giving him a pass for having traveled a tortured path on issues like health care reform, abortion and gay rights. It’s not hard to understand why Mr. Obama and his advisers took Mr. Clinton’s advice to heart; to disregard it would be like telling Derek Jeter, “Hey man, appreciate the input, but I think I know how to make that flip play from the hole just fine on my own.”

But, Bai goes on to say, Romney is now undermining this approach with his late-in-game Etch-a-Sketch toward a more moderate tone:

For a while this summer and into the fall, the Obama-Clinton strategy seemed to be working flawlessly. That’s because, almost inexplicably, Mr. Romney continued to run as if he were still contesting the Republican primaries. But in recent weeks, starting with the first debate, the challenger has made a brazen and frantic dash to the center, and Mr. Obama has often seemed off-balance, as if stunned that Mr. Romney thinks he can get away with such an obvious change of course so late in the race. Which, apparently, he can.
The bottom line here is that one can over-think this whole notion of framing your opponent. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the line of attack that works best is the one that really rings true. In the case of Mr. Romney, whatever his stated positions may be, the idea that he’s a far-right ideologue, a kind of Rush Limbaugh with better suits and frosty hair, just doesn’t feel especially persuasive. On the other hand, the notion that Mr. Romney isn’t centered in any philosophical impulse — that he will say or do whatever it takes to win — seems more plausible, given his contortions on a range of policies, and given his excessive caution as a candidate.
If there’s one thing voters have shown time and time again in recent elections, it’s that they value authenticity above almost anything else. And Mr. Obama might have argued that this lack of a true north actually makes Mr. Romney more threatening to moderate voters than he would be if he were an actual ideologue, simply because he hasn’t shown any inclination to stand up to the more extreme forces in his own party. As it is, though, Mr. Obama has chosen his path, and he now has only days to convince a lot of independents in states like Ohio and Virginia that Mr. Romney really is some raging conservative, rather than the more malleable, somewhat awkward fellow he is impersonating on TV.

Bai is right--it is not really plausible to cast Romney as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative ideologue, and such a framing, on its own, would seem to conflict with the notion of him as a “well-oiled weathervane,” as Jon Huntsman, Jr. memorably put it. And now that Romney’s made his Etch-a-Sketch, the Obama campaign needs to be sure not only to remind voters of Romney’s recent stances, but to drill home the fact that it doesn’t really matter what Romney’s saying now--what matters is what bills will be put before him by conservative congressional Republicans.

That said, though, I’ve thought for months now that it was a mistake to cast Chicago’s anti-Romney message as a dichotomy of flip-flopper versus conservative, because, in fact, there was always a third major prong to the Obama attack: Romney as a self-interested plutocrat. This prong was arguably the most potent. It had the virtue of being easier to back up than the notion of Romney as arch-conservative -- there were all the various Bain Capital horror stories, the low tax rate, the hidden tax records. And it served as as a bridge between the two other lines of attack. How can Romney be both a say-anything guy and in hock to conservative ideology? Well, because he is at bottom a rapacious private equity guy who will do whatever it takes to get into power so that he can protect the interests of people just like him. This was the prong that led the attacks in the most crucial battleground state of Ohio, more than the “severely conservative” line -- as evidenced by this, the most devastating of the anti-Romney ads.

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Which leads to an alternate critique that is gathering some steam, that the campaign spent too long on the anti-Romney attacks, whatever their nature. Glenn Thrush reports in Politico that some Democrats wonder why Obama waited so long to switch from attacking mode to emphasizing his own plans for the next four years, as the campaign did in sending out a 20-page booklet to swing-state voters this week:

Obama officials publicly claim the plan was in the works all along and doesn’t represent a major change. But many Democrats and observers see the Tuesday messaging switch as proof Obama leaned too heavily for too long on a negative “Hit Mitt” strategy, at the expense of a sustained push to convince skeptical voters the president deserves another four years.
“The Obama organization did the single best job of destroying a candidate I have ever seen in my career, from May to September,” said pollster Peter Brown, who conducts the Quinnipiac University poll of battleground states. “But that all went out the window when Romney showed people that the caricature of him as a clown was false. … Now he’s got to make the case for himself. If he was ahead now, my guess is he wouldn’t have taken the chance of putting all of this out there.”
People close to the president wouldn’t say why he hadn’t put out a compact, comprehensible list sooner — a task that is the policy equivalent of making sure the candidate’s name is spelled correctly on yard signs. But several Democrats behind the scenes said Obama was reluctant to be hemmed in by a campaign-year agenda if he were reelected — and he saw no need to put a detailed plan on the table earlier this year when Romney was squirming.

Others, including my colleague Jonathan Cohn, have pointed out that Obama has, all along, had much more of a second-term agenda than he was getting credit for. But Thrush is correct in noting that the campaign has allowed the spread of the perception that Obama does not have a straightforward checklist for the next four years--a perception that something as token as an earlier release of the booklet might have pushed against. It also would have helped matters if Obama were willing to speak as clearly and naturally about his vision for the years ahead when he’s on the debate stage or with on-the-record interviewers as he did when he was off the record with the Des Moines Register.

However, I’m not sure that this means that the Obama side was wrong to spend as long pummeling Romney as it did. This was always going to be a tough reelection and the path to victory was always going to mean replicating, to a great extent, George W. Bush’s path in 2004, with its unflinching attempt to disqualify the challenger. And, for most of this campaign, it was working wonders, helping drive Romney’s favorability numbers to very low levels. Not to mention that the attacks were hardly untethered to the campaign’s broader “positive” message of trying to restore a sense of fair play in the American economic system. The fact is, of all the reasons why Ohio has emerged as a possible firewall for Obama, despite pretty unfavorable demographics, the top one is surely that that state saw more of the anti-Romney messaging than any other -- amazingly, more than one-sixth of the two million YouTube views for the ad mentioned above were in Ohio. And that it’s why it’s hardly surprising to learn that the SuperPAC that produced that ad is now putting it back on the air -- even as the chipper booklets go out in the mail.

If you ask me, the question that really ought to be raised now about the Obama message is whether he is striking the right tone of uplift and optimism in these closing weeks. The campaign has been worried all year about seeming premature in championing economic recovery, knowing that the good indicators could go south again and that many voters are still in dire straits. At the same time, things are starting to look up and the campaign risks failing to capitalize what could be an upbeat story line. Here is how the campaign is trying to strike the balance on the airwaves -- a sort of muted version of Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” ad in 1984. Yet because the campaign is wary of going all-out with the optimism -- after all, there is one more jobs report to come -- it still ends up with unflattering swing-state front pages like this. I’d be interested to hear whether readers make of this question -- how sunny should Obama be in running against the newly sunny Romney?

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis