In truly unshocking news, Barack Obama emailed supporters this week to let them know he was running for president again. "We're doing this now because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you — with people organizing block-by-block, talking to neighbors, co-workers and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build."
Don't get him wrong. There will be expensive TV ads and extravaganzas. Oh, yes. After all, what would an Obama campaign be without its outsized, world-historic, bread and circus spectacles?
In fact, that's the real point of President Obama's early announcement: He needs to start raising hundreds of millions of dollars now if he's going to have those extravaganzas later. (Personally, I hope he makes another campaign stop in Berlin.) And, thanks to FEC rules, he can't start the serious fundraising until he makes it official.
If it weren't for that, Mr. Obama would be delighted to stay on the sidelines, because his whole re-election strategy requires going on semi-hiatus from the presidency. That's why he's been AWOL on the budget battles. It's why he's completely ignored his own deficit commission, and it's why he's been saying as little as possible on foreign policy. It's also why, last week, he accepted an award for government "transparency" — in secret.
The White House has learned the hard way that it overexposed its biggest asset during Mr. Obama's first two years in office, using him for countless supposedly "game-changing" speeches that changed little or nothing. He gave the most press interviews in presidential history, according to Mark Knoller of CBS. In 2009, he had 411 public speeches, comments and remarks, and 491 in 2010. But in 2011, we have what Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus calls a "Where's Waldo presidency" where "you frequently have to squint to find the White House amid the larger landscape."
You can even play "Where's Obama?" in the re-election announcement video. He never makes a personal appearance; you never even hear his voice. Though if you watch closely, you can see some nostalgic photos from 2008. The wan video specifies no significant record or accomplishments. This was no updated version of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" ad, which for all its gauzy nostalgia actually had substance, touting record employment, home buying and much lower interest rates.
Even Mr. Obama's guru, David Axelrod, agrees Mr. Obama was overexposed, comparing it to how the Chicago Bears relied on legendary running back Walter Payton for everything. It "was Payton left and Payton right and Payton up the middle," he told New York magazine. "It became kind of a dreary game plan. [In Obama] we have one of the great political performers of our time. But I think we degraded that to some degree by using him as much as we did in the ways we did."
The problem with the analogy: Mr. Payton was overused because he delivered. There's not a lot of evidence that Mr. Obama can be counted on to advance, never mind score, whenever you give him the ball. Nearly all of his victories have stemmed not from presidential persuasion of the opposition or the public but from relying on the congressional Democrats' majority. He gave 52 speeches on health-care reform in 2009. It never got more popular. It passed because he shopped out health care to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, who relied on legislative skullduggery more than presidential leadership.
The fact that Mr. Obama's decision to intervene in Libya has produced no rallying around the president might also indicate that he should keep his head down. Or it might show that his bizarre approach to the conflict is as confusing to average voters as it is to everyone else.
Obviously, Mr. Obama fervently hopes the economy will at least "feel" a lot better by 2012. But that's a big if, given high unemployment and underemployment as well as the decline in real income and home values. Even if we get the jobs, Mr. Obama will have a hard time answering the "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" question.
I understand why Mr. Obama is lying low. What's less understandable is why so many Republicans are scared of him.
Jonah Goldberg is a syndicated columnist. His email is email@example.com.