Obama Can't Be… Obama?

President Obama’s reelection campaign is well underway, but one of his first real political message was: “I can’t be Obama in ’08, but you have to be.” In the campaign’s 2012 announcement video, Alice, a supporter from Michigan talks about how Obama “has a job” and how “[Obama] can’t come and take some time to get us all energized” and so “we better figure it out.”

On a call with supporters, Vice President Joe Biden said: “The president is not going to be out there on the stump. He’s not going to be able to be out there doing the organizing he was able to do as a candidate. So we’re going to have to rely more on you all than you ever did.”

Obama’s campaign manager in the New York Times: “He’s not going to be sitting in their living rooms the way he was in ’07 and early ’08. He has to be president of the United States.”

Obama is in a tricky spot. He has the daunting task of re-energizing and reconnecting his base — much of which has been disillusioned and fractured by his choices as president. He is then asking that base to come together as they did in ’08, but this time to do so without him. His reason: he has to continue doing the governing work that disillusioned so many of them in the first place.

That comes across a bit to people as, “You’re asking me to help you so you can keep disappointing me?”

To be fair, the intent of this “can’t” message was likely designed to simply manage expectations. I would bet that the Obama team earnestly believes that he has to be President Obama first. He simply will not be available in the same way and so they better prep the supporters now. If true, that’s smart internal marketing.

However, internal marketing, no matter how deft, cannot be broadcast as what the election is about. In the long run that’s far too tactical, too much politics. It’s talking to people, as Deval Patrick would say, “about how we win and not why we should.” It’s not enabling the conversation that this American president needs to have with his base and the country. That conversation focuses on the choices he’s made, where we stand as a nation because of those choices, and the choices ahead, especially in these serious times. If Obama can lay out those arguments first, it will be easy to talk about why he is going to be working vigorously at the job, and why people need to do their part to enable him to continue that job.

Frankly, people already know he’s the president. They just want to see how he’s been the one that they elected two short years ago so that they can work or vote to reelect him. For that to happen, Obama, if he still can, must be Obama.

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