Forget hope and change. President Obama's re-election campaign is going to be based on fear and loathing: fear of what a Republican takeover would mean, and loathing of whomever the Republican nominee turns out to be.
Of course, the Obama campaign will attempt to present the affirmative case for his re-election, citing legislative achievements, foreign policy successes and the current flurry of executive actions. But his strategists have clearly concluded that selling the president will not be enough, and the contours of the ugly months ahead are becoming increasingly apparent.
All campaigns are about drawing contrasts. Even running for re-election with the benefit of a healthy economy in 1996, Bill Clinton campaigned against the imaginary Dole-Gingrich ticket, with an early and intense barrage of ads tying the eventual Republican nominee to the unpopular House speaker.
And as much as Obama presented himself as above the regular partisan fray during the 2008 campaign, he was not averse to taking the lower road when it appeared the advisable route.
But running for a second term accompanied by the albatross of 9 percent unemployment inevitably requires an even more brutal technique. In that sense, Obama's re-election campaign is more reminiscent of George W. Bush versus John Kerry in 2004, an embattled president who managed to win re-election by relentlessly painting the opponent as an out-of-touch flip-flopper.
David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager and now a senior White House adviser, made the re-election campaign's two-step, fear-and-loathing approach clear in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."
First, fear: "This country cannot afford to go back to the same policies that Mitt Romney and Rick Perry and all of these presidential candidates are offering," Plouffe said. "Let Wall Street write its own rules, make it easier for polluters to foul our air and water, and give millionaires and billionaires more tax cuts paid for by asking the middle class and seniors to do more."
No matter who wins the Republican nomination, Plouffe said, "they're offering the same economic policies that led to the great recession, that led to destruction of middle-class security in incomes."
Next, loathing. Obama advisers believe that Romney is the most likely nominee, and they have prepared a two-pronged attack on him -- as unprincipled and uncaring.
"He has no core," Plouffe said of Romney in an unusually sharp attack for a White House official. "You get the sense with Mitt Romney that, you know, if he thought it was good to say the sky was green and the grass is blue to win an election, he'd say it."
Next, although Plouffe didn't get around to it, is the planned depiction of Romney as the fat cat from Bain Capital, the heartless management consultant who bought companies, stripped their assets and sent their jobs to China.
Obama adviser David Axelrod made this point last month on "Morning Joe." "He says he represents business, but he really represents the Wall Street side of business," Axelrod said of Romney. "He stripped down companies and outsourced jobs in ways that I think reflect people's concerns about the economy."
That ill-advised photograph of Romney and the boys at Bain with dollar bills bulging out of their pockets? Expect to see a lot of it.
This is not going to be an uplifting campaign. It's going to be a slugfest, and the slugging is only getting started.