The struggle to define President Obama

Updated
 
Four years later, to his critics, he's still a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Four years later, to his critics, he's still a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Official White House photo

I’ve met consultants who’ve stressed the importance of a “message matrix” – a four-square chart in which a campaign decides (1) how they’ll define their opponent; (2) how they’ll define themselves; (3) how their opponent will define them; and (4) and how their opponent will define themselves. It’s Campaign Management 101.

When it comes to challenging President Obama, Republicans may have skipped the class.

I saw a conservative the other day complaining that Obama is “just another politician,” who’s such an extreme liberal, he’s unlike any politician in American history. The fact that both claims can’t be true was an easily overlooked detail.

I mention this because yesterday offered another classic example of the right’s incoherence on the subject.

Barack Obama figured out who Mitt Romney was in March, but the same can’t be said the other way around. […]

Is Obama a radical leftist working to turn America into a socialist welfare society? Or is a well-meaning incompetent, incapable of bringing change to Washington?

Judging by Romney’s messaging this week the answer is they still aren’t sure.

In yesterday’s case, Team Romney spent Thursday excitedly telling the political world Obama doesn’t believe change comes from Washington, after having excitedly told the political world on Wednesday that Obama believes change can only come from Washington.

Again, both of these attacks can’t be true at the same time. The lines are polar opposites.

Republicans have been gearing up for this moment since the day after Obama was elected more than four years ago, but they’ve never been able to figure out exactly what they dislike so much about the president.

We talked a month ago about the “Pick a smear and stick with it” thesis, and it underscores what BuzzFeed is reporting on.

At different times over the last four years, Obama’s detractors have said he’s a ruthless Chicago thug and a “wuss.” He’s a bystander who goes golfing too much and an activist president who engages too much. He’s sticking to the Bush/Cheney script on national security and he’s putting us at risk by abandoning the Bush/Cheney national security agenda. He’s cutting cherished entitlement programs like Medicare and he refuses to cut entitlement programs like Medicare. He’s too mean to Wall Street and he’s too nice to Wall Street.

The Obama campaign tends to stick to specific themes, incorporating new information into the message matrix aides drew up a year ago, reinforcing larger arguments. The Romney campaign tends to act like small children playing soccer, running wildly to wherever they see a bouncing ball, whether it’s strategically wise or not.

Barack Obama

The struggle to define President Obama

Updated