Post-convention, a More-Subdued Obama Hits the Road to Make His Case

Can New Sidekick Clinton Persuade Americans to Give President Another Chance?

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President Barack Obama struck a note of humility when he told convention-goers in Charlotte last Thursday that he was "far more mindful" of his "own failings." It's a markedly different tone than the triumphal one he offered as a candidate accepting the party's presidential nomination in Denver four years ago. The president is no longer offering the poetry of "change"; rather, he is making the more prosaic promise that solid groundwork has been laid to repair the economy but that a full turnaround will take more time.

The Democrats' convention bested the Republicans' in both TV ratings points and social-media chatter. While it didn't grab the 38 million viewers who tuned into the Democratic convention in 2008, according to Nielsen the final night pulled in 35.7 million viewers -- substantially more than the Republican convention did.

Whether that momentum can be sustained, however, may come down to dollars. Mitt Romney's campaign and the outside groups backing him have been raising more money every month that they can use to blanket swing states with ads.

While Mr. Obama laid out some goals for his second term, including adding a million manufacturing jobs and cutting the deficit by $4 trillion, it was former President Bill Clinton -- in whom the president has by all appearances now found a powerful and impassioned ally -- who did the heavy lifting of defending the president's performance on the economy. He ran through Mr. Obama's victories, including the auto bailout and health-care reform, point by point and said few could have done better given the circumstances: "No president, no president -- not me, not any of my predecessors -- no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years."

The Obama campaign didn't respond to requests for comment on its advertising and messaging strategy in the run-up to Election Day, but some educated guesses can be made.

One is that Mr. Clinton will factor significantly in its messaging. That was foreshadowed by a TV ad that debuted in late August in which he calls Mr. Obama the candidate who's "more likely to return us to full employment." He also appeared in a video prior to Mr. Obama's convention speech, along with Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, that catalogued the president's accomplishments (with voice-over by George Clooney). According to Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who ran Howard Dean's campaign in 2004, the most effective way for the Obama camp to tap its not-so-secret weapon is to find a way to distill the message he delivered in his 45-minute speech -- that the broken economy couldn't have been repaired by anyone, but that Mr. Obama's stewardship has put it on the track to recovery -- into a 30- or 60-second TV spot.

"Of course, Bill Clinton presented a better defense of Obama than Obama can; he can say things Obama can't say," Mr. Trippi said. "He can say, "I've been there, I know how tough it is .'"

It's likely that Mr. Obama's ads will continue to put a spotlight on Mr. Romney's record and equivocations. According to Garry South, a California-based Democratic strategist who worked on Al Gore's presidential campaign, Mr. Obama's ads need to address the lack of specificity in Mr. Romney's vision, while providing specifics on his own plans. They should also debunk the Republican claim that Americans are worse off than they were four years ago, he said.

Then there's also the argument that Mr. Obama has always been his own best spokesman and needs to appear in more of his own spots instead of relying on surrogates.

"He's got to exploit the likability gap over Mitt Romney," Mr. South said.

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