President Barack Obama's campaign had a great and much-needed terrible week or so: bad economic news (that keeps on coming), questions about leaks of national security information (When you leak a target list that makes the president look tough, is that politically motivated? When you do it in June, when no one's paying attention, is that so politically stupid that they couldn't be that stupid?), not to mention being outraised by Mitt Romney and the RNC in a month when the president raised $60 million, and getting killed in Wisconsin, which is how it looked even if they tried to make it look like he wasn't really involved.
That's most people's definition of a very bad week.
You don't have to see this week's polls to know that Obama didn't move up last week.
There are cycles to campaigns, as the talking heads have been saying. Sen. John Kerry outraised George W. Bush in the month after he clinched the nomination for the presidency. Republicans continue to depend far more heavily on big donors than small ones, which plays to both their fundraising base and their political weakness. It's a long way to November. Yada, yada.
But the truth is that many Democratic insiders, notwithstanding the very insecure economy, have been feeling a little more secure than they should. They were starting to believe the conventional wisdom that Romney is a weak candidate, shackled by his ties to the wealthy, stiff and unappealing, too rich, too Wall Street, too boring.
I can't recall the last conversation I had with a smart Democrat that didn't conclude, after the usual bashing of Obama's strategy or speech or most recent "joke," with the assessment that, regardless of all that, "Obama wins."
This is not 2008.
You don't get to go to rallies and feel like the world is changing and the earth is moving and "yes, we can."
Obama actually did many of the things he said he would, but the sausage making got in the way. And some of it turned out to be much tougher than it looked. And Washington did not change. And a lot of money got spent. And people are still unemployed in unacceptable numbers.
Four more years is not the inevitable result, even if the bumbling Republican nomination contest made it look that way. Bill Clinton may have been off the reservation temporarily, but no one has ever suggested that he's grown stupid since becoming the first Democrat since FDR to win two terms. If he's off the reservation, it's because there are troubles on the reservation. If other Democrats weren't seeing this, maybe now they will.
Of course, the result is probably an even less-fun campaign.
It's fun to run for re-election when the economy is on the rebound. You can make beautiful ads about it being "morning in America" and clever but not exactly transparent ads about the bear in the forest, like Ronald Reagan did in 1984. You can watch your opponent making five stops a day, while you get your message out in two. You can do big rallies where you ask people if they are better off than they were four years ago and they say "yes, we are."
That is not what the Obama campaign will do. The most obvious way to win an election when you're the incumbent and the economy is still sort of in the toilet is to turn your opponent into an even bigger risk: the devil you don't know. You can't easily tell people they're better off than they think they are, so you have to convince them that it could — and would — be worse under the other guy.
It's not just about "grinding it out," as the president himself once said, with a better organization or more fliers and phone banks. It's also about taking a relentlessly negative approach in everything the campaign itself says and does. It's about independent groups diving even further into the gutter, no doubt on both sides. You certainly can expect the Republicans and their independent backers to stoop every bit as low as the Democrats, and to be flinging at least as much mud at Obama. Nice.
Every four years, just after we get done with all the talk of brokered conventions, we start warning that this campaign could be the dirtiest and most negative yet. Brokered conventions are the fantasy of bored convention watchers. A dirty and miserable campaign is a pretty safe bet, but it's better to plan for it in advance than to assume you're facing anything else.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.