Why 2012 Is Not 2004

Unlike Bush, Obama is seen as an unusually weak chief executive.

President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney may be dead even in the polls, but some pundits insist the president will prevail on Election Day because 2012 is the new 2004.

The story line goes like this: President George W. Bush had roughly the same numbers at this point in 2004 that Mr. Obama has today. Mr. Bush went on to win a narrow victory by building a massive ground game that focused on the GOP's base and by relentlessly attacking his opponent, Sen. John Kerry. Mr. Obama is executing the same strategy. What worked for Mr. Bush, the theory goes, will work for Mr. Obama.

The only problem is the theory is based on a false premise.

True, there are some similarities between 2004 and 2012. Mr. Obama's current job approval and personal favorability ratings are roughly the same as Mr. Bush's in 2004. So are the head-to-head matchups: In mid-May 2004, Mr. Bush trailed Mr. Kerry in Gallup, 46%-48%, while in the most recent Gallup tracking Mr. Obama is tied with Mr. Romney, 46%-46%.

But there are crucial differences between the two elections. It is a myth that 2004 was all about maximizing Republican turnout. The Bush campaign also successfully sought to win as many independents as possible and to poach elements of the Democratic coalition. In the end, Mr. Bush received 44% of the Hispanic vote, carried the largest share (24%) of the Jewish vote for any Republican since 1988, nearly erased the gender gap with 48% of the women's vote, and was supported by 11% of black voters, up from 8% in 2000.

If Mr. Obama makes this election mostly about energizing the Democratic base—as he clearly intends to—he will further alienate swing voters who elected him in 2008 and then turned on his policies with a vengeance in 2010.

A second big difference is that the 2004 election was a referendum on whether Mr. Bush was keeping America safe. Remember "security moms"—that post-9/11 voting bloc of mostly white, married women with children? In a late September 2004 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 62% of voters approved of Mr. Bush's handling of terrorism while 36% disapproved. In the Election Day exit polls, 58% said they did not trust Mr. Kerry to handle terrorism. Mr. Bush won 84% of these security-minded voters, Mr. Kerry just 15%.

The 2012 election will be a referendum on Mr. Obama's performance not against terrorism, but on the economy. Only 42% in the May 20 ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy while 55% disapprove.

Meanwhile, the economy is seen as a strong point for Mr. Romney. When asked "Which candidate do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?" Mr. Romney polls as high or higher than Mr. Obama. It's unclear that negative attacks on Mr. Romney by Team Obama will materially change Mr. Romney's standing, especially if effectively rebutted or deflected.

But the most important difference between the two elections is this: In the April 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 64% said they saw Mr. Bush as a strong leader; 36% said he was not. Today, just 51% see Mr. Obama as a strong leader; 48% do not.

Among the greatest political assets any president has is the public's perception of him as a leader. If voters see an incumbent president as strong and effective, many will vote for him even if they don't fully agree with him on some important issues.

But this president is perceived by many, even some in his own party, as indecisive, too willing to outsource the writing of key legislation to Congress, too eager to lead from behind, too political, too calculating, and too ready to discard frequently voiced promises. Most importantly, he appears hostage to events rather than in control of them.

Playing into the impression of Mr. Obama as an unusually weak chief executive is his practice of blaming the nation's challenges on everything from his predecessor to a tsunami in Japan to ATMs to the Arab Spring to airport check-in kiosks to Fox News to Super PACs to the Supreme Court. The blame game can work for maybe a year; after that, it is (rightly) seen as weak and whiny.

A president is strongest when he takes more responsibility and less credit. Too frequently, Mr. Obama does the opposite. The self-portrait the president has painted is of a weak liberal, buffeted by events. That will make this election more like 1980—when Ronald Reagan defeated an ineffectual Jimmy Carter—than 2004.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, May 30, 2012.