Opinion

Should Obama run on hope or on fear?

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Lanny Davis
Former Special Counsel to President Clinton
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      Lanny Davis

      Lanny J. Davis counsels individuals, corporations and government contractors, and those under congressional scrutiny, on crisis management and legal issues by developing legal, media and legislative strategies that are designed to best produce a successful result for the client. He has experience in securities fraud and SEC investigations as well, and has found that utilizing such an integrated legal/media/lobbying approach can lead to quicker and less expensive settlements or even successfully litigated outcomes. Senior officials of public companies have also hired Lanny and his crisis group to defend themselves successfully against "short and distort" attacks and other market manipulations. For 25 years prior to 1996, before his tenure as special counsel to President Clinton, Lanny was a commercial, antitrust, government contracts and False Claims Act litigator (both in defense as well as plaintiff). He has argued numerous appellate cases in the U.S. courts of appeals.

      In June 2005, President Bush appointed Lanny to serve on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the U.S. Congress as part of the 2005 Intelligence Reform Act. In that capacity, he received the highest level security clearances so that he could be fully briefed and "read in" to the various anti-terrorist surveillance and financial tracking programs at the highest classified level. From 1996 to 1998, Lanny served as special counsel to the president in the White House and was a spokesperson for the president and the White House on matters concerning campaign finance investigations and other legal issues. Lanny has participated in national, state and local politics for almost 30 years. He has served three terms (1980 to 1992) on the Democratic National Committee representing the state of Maryland, and during that period he served on the DNC Executive Committee and as chairman of the Eastern Region Caucus. In Montgomery County, Maryland, he served as chairman of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission.

      Lanny has authored several books and lectured throughout the United States and Europe on various political issues. Between 1990 and 1996, Lanny was a bimonthly commentator on Maryland politics for WAMU-88.5/FM, a Washington, D.C. local affiliate of National Public Radio. He has been a regular television commentator and has been a political and legal analyst for MSNBC, CNN, Fox Cable, CNBC and network TV news programs. He has published numerous op-ed/analysis pieces in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, he Washington Post and other national publications.

      Lanny graduated from Yale Law School, where he won the prestigious Thurman Arnold Moot Court prize and served on the Yale Law Journal. A graduate of Yale University, Lanny served as chairman of the Yale Daily News.

      Lanny is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and Connecticut and before the Supreme Court of the United States and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Within 24 hours over the holiday weekend, Democrats could read two starkly different messaging strategies for President Obama’s re-election campaign.

On Monday, May 28, Memorial Day, John Heilemann’s New York magazine article was headlined: “For Obama & Co., this time it’s all about fear.”

The day before, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote a column headlined: “Obama should seize the high ground.”

Heilemann wrote:

Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago running more negative ads than any campaign in history, what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier of Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. … “He’s the ’50s, he is retro, he is backward, and we are forward, that’s the basic construct,” says a top Obama strategist. “If you’re a woman, you’re Hispanic, you’re young, or you’ve gotten left out, you look at Romney and say, ‘This f–king guy is gonna take us back to the way it always was, and guess what? I’ve never been a part of that. …’”

Thus to a very real degree, 2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear. For many Democrats, this is fine and dandy, for they believe that in the Romney-Republican agenda there is plenty to be scared of.

The day before, Friedman wrote:

I wonder how Barack Obama would do it if he ran for president as himself. How would he do if he ran for re-election on all the things he’s accomplished but rarely speaks about? … Is there anyone in America today who doesn’t either have a pre-existing medical condition or know someone who does and can’t get health insurance as a result? Yet two years after Obama’s healthcare bill became law, how many Americans understand that once it is fully implemented no American with a pre-existing condition will ever be denied coverage?

Obama didn’t just save the auto industry from bankruptcy. Two years later, he also got all the top U.S. automakers to increase mileage for their vehicle fleets to 54.6 miles per gallon by 2025, from 27.5 mpg today. As Popular Mechanics put it, this “is the largest mandatory fuel economy increase in history.” Did you know Obama did that?

So which strategy is best?

Virtually every major national poll in the last several weeks has Obama and Romney somewhere in the mid-40s, in a statistical dead heat, with about 10 percent undecided. So for those who want Obama to win, the only relevant question should be: What is the message that is most likely to win over these 10 percent?

Friedman supplies the answer:

Had Obama gone to the country with more near-term stimulus married to Simpson-Bowles [the Deficit Reduction Commission proposals], he would have owned the left, independents and center-right. It would have split the Republicans and provided a real alternative to the radical Paul Ryan-Romney plan.

In sum, Obama’s campaign right now feels as though it were made in a test tube by political consultants. It’s not the Obama we admire. Rather than pounding the country with “I have a plan” — a rebuilding stimulus plus Simpson-Bowles — which would be an Obama message of hope, leadership and unity that would put him on higher ground that Romney can’t reach because of the radical GOP base, Obama is selling poll-tested wedge issues. I don’t think it’s a winner for him or America.

The irony should be obvious: Those of us, such as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and this writer and many other Democrats who believe President Obama has a positive story to tell, are excoriated, including personal attacks with motives questioned, by those strident Obama supporters who prefer a negative campaign against Romney to defending the president’s record.

Keep your eyes on that undecided 10 percent in the middle, who will decide the election. Which message can best win them over — the positive message of hope, explaining the good things Barack Obama has accomplished, or the negative message, trying to scare people about how extreme Mitt Romney is?

Lanny Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as Special Counsel to Dilworth Paxson. He is the author of the book “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” and the forthcoming book, “Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life,” to be published by Simon & Schuster.