For Obama, Survival Is the New Winning

The President figured out how to leverage a thumping victory from relative weakness.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Obama attends a campaign rally in Richmond, Va.

The survivor took the stage well after midnight, having waited more than 90 minutes for the concession call from a stunned Romney headquarters. Four years earlier, at Grant Park in Chicago, the young Illinois Senator described his decisive win as a mandate for change — only to find that victory speeches expire in Washington quicker than the warranty on a bootleg wristwatch. Each bold step President Obama took toward his sweeping agenda brought him a little deeper into the mud, until he was swamped in the wake of the Tea Party speedboat. Four years later, the struggle was visible in each gray hair on his head.

“I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly,” Obama said. But politics “is important,” not least in a campaign like this one. “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated,” he continued. “We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy … These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.”

(PHOTOS: Last Days on the Road with Romney)

Two Spent Forces
Obama made no promises of bold new programs. Instead he pledged to work on cutting the deficit, overhauling the tax code and bridging the divide on immigration. Any trouble he has in claiming a larger mandate for a second term is in part because he never really sought one. It’s easy to forget that 2012 was a new experience for him, the first time Obama faced a vigorous re-election challenge — for any office. His political career until now had almost always been a one-way escalator gliding up, up, up. His swoon in the polls a month before the voting was his first encounter with the law of gravity, and he got quite close to earth before his chute opened.

If his first presidential campaign could be distilled into a single moment, it might be the day in July 2008 when he visited U.S. troops in Kuwait. The upstart rookie found himself in a gymnasium. Someone handed him a basketball. Obama was wearing a microphone and street shoes. He had not warmed up. He had no business taking a shot with cameras rolling, because the moment screamed metaphor. Undaunted, he bounced the ball, spun it between his fingers — then launched a three-pointer that carved a rainbow on its way to the pot of gold. His 53% share of the popular vote four months later was the largest any Democrat had won in more than 40 years.

This time around, Obama’s game plan involved trading elbows beneath the basket. With the public down on his signature first-term achievement — the mammoth enterprise known as Obamacare — he and his allies decided to go negative early, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a summertime ad blitz targeted at swing-state voters. The idea was to paint Romney in lurid colors as Scrooge McDuck minus the spats, a Bain plutocrat who swam in gold coins that he looted from once proud companies before firing their hardworking employees. The ads pounded Romney over his tax returns, teased him about his wife’s show horse and blamed him for the death of a woman whose husband once worked (but no longer did) at a company that Romney once controlled (but no longer did).

It was a page ripped from the GOP’s soiled 2004 playbook. In that year, President George W. Bush overcame his weakness in the polls by savaging his challenger, John Kerry of Massachusetts. Romney fought back with tactics similar to Obama’s, though various spending rules meant that his negative barrage started later. By the final days of campaigning, according to one analysis, nearly 90% of campaign ads in the battleground states were negative. No one was wasting money on “Morning in America” uplift. It’s not morning; many Americans are worried that it’s twilight. The irony, in such a blood-red campaign, was that the men at the top were so bloodless: the number-crunching Romney vs. the aloof and analytical Obama.

(MORE: Four More Years: Obama Wins Re-election)

The incumbent opened a lead in September, after the party conventions. Former President Bill Clinton, his reputation burnished by the passage of time and the experience of his successors, gave a bravura defense of his wife’s onetime rival. It was perhaps the first speech of the campaign with any resonance, and the last. But then Obama and Romney made their first side-by-side appearance in a debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3. Romney did not look nearly as frightening as the President’s ads suggested. Obama, however, with his low-energy performance, appeared to be every bit the spent force that Romney’s negative script depicted. By a Gallup Poll–record 52-point margin, the viewing public crowned Romney the winner.

It turned out that Obama, in a burst of overconfidence, had canceled many of his prep sessions and somehow got it into his head that he didn’t need to engage the earnest Romney while millions watched. The biggest surprise of the night, one Democratic partisan said — this is called putting some lipstick on the pig — was not that Obama failed to hide who he was but that Romney did such a fine job of pretending to be something he wasn’t. That judgment helped explain why the post-Denver polls showed a whole new race, one suddenly too close to call. By some measures, the contest entered the final 10 days with public opinion almost exactly where it was in midsummer, an amazing thing when you think of it: all that heat and noise, and nothing happens. The country’s one clear voice in the last hours of the election was an unlikely YouTube sensation, Colorado 4-year-old Abigael Evans, who sobbed pathetically and moaned, “I’m tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney.”

EXCLUSIVE: The Strategy That Helped Obama Win

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