How will Obama’s 2012 campaign look different from 2008?

Obama was a messaging master in 2008, with his “Change” and “Hope” mantras. But, in 2012, with some of the called-for changes completed, or, at the other end of the spectrum, abandoned, he’ll have to navigate a more treacherous field of potential promises. On some issues, like immigration, we are likely to hear that change takes more than one term. Others he’s likely to avoid altogether. Below is a list of particularly sticky issues—some critical in 2008—that the Obama campaign will have to step gently around:


Bailouts. While the economy is still in bad shape, the danger of economic collapse is not as imminent as it seemed in 2008, when the bailouts—of banks, insurance agencies, and automakers—were viewed as necessary measures by leading economists. Pro-bailout candidate Obama generally used the financial rescue mission as a means to separate himself from George W. Bush-like economics—a sort-of “look what he got us into” point of comparison. But, three years later, things are different. Despite economists’ assertions that the bailouts and relief programs were essential to the country’s (admittedly meager) recovery, public opinion continues to stand firmly against the bailouts. A recent Rasmussen poll shows that 57 percent of voters believe that “government bailouts were a bad idea,” which makes it highly unlikely that the Obama campaign will make much of them on the campaign trail.

Financial Regulatory Reform. When Obama was campaigning the last time around (following rampant deregulation during the George W. Bush presidency), he promised financial regulatory reform, calling in October 2008 for “common-sense regulations to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.” And, with the July 2010 Dodd-Frank Bill, which created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, heightened regulation for the biggest banks, and gave shareholders more influence on executive pay, he did just that. But, on economic issues, jobs and income are what matters most to voters. And for voters who are living with 9 percent unemployment and income levels that aren’t matching increased costs of living, that first term legislative victory may not resonate.

Health Care Reform. Obama’s major 2008 promise—guaranteeing coverage for young people and people with pre-existing conditions—has been fulfilled, making health care reform one of president Obama’s key legislative victories. And yet, it remains a hugely controversial issue—both among voters and Republicans, with lower court appeals over the law’s constitutionality underway in several states. And so, while the 2012 Obama campaign will likely use the Affordable Care Act to enumerate its accomplishments, the message on health care will necessarily be different and is likely to be defensive: Early legal appeals will likely reach the Supreme Court just in time for the campaign.

“Change.” Perhaps the starkest messaging difference for Obama’s second presidential campaign will be his inability to conjure up the failures of the incumbent and promise a different vision. And what about those changes promised in 2008? Candidate Obama’s vision for a government that worked across party lines largely did not come into being, and attempts to create bipartisanship, many argue, led to weakened legislative accomplishments. And while Obama did sign financial regulation into law, he was unable to prevent billions of dollars in bonuses for Wall Street bankers in early 2009 (a key ‘change’ promise) and 2010 bonuses only declined slightly—not exactly the “new era of responsibility and accountability” he called for in 2008.

Historical Significance. Though Obama has largely refrained from discussions of race, his place in history is self-evident. But, for the next campaign, will being the first African-American president carry the same significance? In 2008, the enormity of what Obama represented drew many Americans to the polls. Young people and African-Americans—two groups with traditionally low turn-out—voted for Obama in numbers that broke traditional patterns of apathy. But, there are some early indications of mixed feelings toward Obama among young voters and African-American voters on specific issues like unemployment and the economy. The degree to which an enthusiasm drop-off among these groups will impact the election, however, remains unknown.

Matthew McKnight is an intern at The New Republic.

Follow @mjmcknight and @tnr on Twitter.