I know we’re all supposed to think that the primaries are poised to turn out a weak Republican nominee and that President Obama will swoop in this fall and carry the day with some brilliant pincer move that simultaneously dubs the Republican too extreme, too moderate, too boring, and too weird. And I suppose it’s possible that the president and his team will suddenly turn out to possess keen political skills they have been hiding somewhere for the past three years. But can we spend a moment pondering the approach that team Obama seems to be hatching so far? Looking at what the administration and the Obama campaign have been doing and saying in the buildup to the general election, it has been awfully difficult to find evidence of a plausible strategy.There's more at the link.
Obama has some very daunting problems to contend with, of course. His record of accomplishments, amassed mostly in his first two years in office, is extremely unpopular and so could not be the centerpiece of a reelection campaign. He has presided over the largest deficits in American history and nearly doubled the national debt. He pushed through a large stimulus bill in 2009 that is taken to have been a failure (in no small part because the administration defined metrics for success, like keeping unemployment from rising above 8%, that have plainly not been met) and a health-care reform in 2010 that started out quite unpopular and has gotten only more so with time. Meanwhile the economy remains weak, unemployment remains high, and 80 percent of voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country.
This has left the president in an exceptionally challenging political position in a re-election year. At the beginning of November of 2010, on the day Republicans took 63 House seats and 5 senate seats from the Democrats, Obama’s job approval in Gallup’s daily tracking poll was 44 percent; today it is 43 percent. Party identification in November 2010, according to Gallup, was 31 percent Democrat, 26 percent Republican, and 41 percent independent; in December 2011 it was 27 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican, and 42 percent independent. Republicans held a 5 point lead in Rasmussen’s generic congressional ballot that November, and today they have a 6 point lead.
All this suggests there is no self-evident path to reelection for the president. He can hope for significant improvements in the economy to change his fortunes (although the unemployment rate is a good bit lower today than in November 2010 and that doesn’t seem to have done the trick), but he can’t run on his record or rely on some cushion of public confidence and satisfaction. He needs a positive strategy to improve his circumstances. But the campaign strategy his team appears to be putting into place would seem to be very poorly suited to doing so.
Based on what the president and his advisers have said and done in recent weeks, that strategy appears to consist of creating populist confrontations with Congress and then complaining that Washington is broken because Republicans won’t let the president have his way. That’s a strategy that tells the public that the current situation in Washington is untenable and change is needed. Is that not an odd way for a Democratic incumbent president (whose party also controls the Senate) to run against a Republican outsider? It first of all exacerbates the public’s mistrust of government, which tends to reinforce Republican policy proposals (since those generally aim to take power away from government) but to undermine Democratic ones (which generally aim to give more power to government). It also implies that President Obama is having trouble doing his job, which can’t be a great re-election theme. It says that the problem we have is the result of a conflict between the president and Congress in a year when the Republican party, but not the Democratic party, will be led by someone who is neither the president nor in Congress and so is presumably not part of that problem. And it argues (understandably) that things could only get better if the White House and Congress were both held by Democrats—but the last time that happened was when we ended up with those unpopular achievements of Obama’s first two years. Is he proposing to do more of that?
Indeed, the question of just what he is proposing to do raises another peculiar problem with this emerging strategy. The Obama team’s approach might make sense if the substance of their policy proposals were enormously popular, so that telling the public that these could be enacted if only Obama is given a few more years to push them might help his case. But what are those proposals? A payroll-tax holiday? Higher taxes on the wealthy? Is there anything else? Or to put it another way, why does the president want to be re-elected? To stop Mitt Romney? To implement Obamacare? What does he want to do with a second term? More of the same?
It's clear that Obama's main strategy will be focused on class warfare. Republicans are rich, elites who want to take your money for themselves, while Democrats are generous, loving, wonderful people who want to give you more stuff...after they take it from the rich Republicans.
That message will resonate with the usual crowd, largely made up of the 47% of wage earners who don't currently pay income tax and think the "rich" aren't paying their fair share, and the others for whom a government check keeps them in poverty where they seem quite satisfied to stay.
However, the starry-eyed youth who flocked to Obama in 2008 probably won't do that again as they watch their futures fade away with poor job prospects and mounting student debt. Inspiring those people will be a little tougher this time. I'm not sure promising to punish rich people is going to be a hit with people who would actually like to be rich some day.
Oh, and let's not forget the attack on Mormonism which is sure to come if Romney is the nominee. You're suddenly going to see all sorts of stories about that faith, not necessarily specifically mentioning Romney, but that are designed to convince you that Mormons are weird and shouldn't be in the White House. It's coming, just wait.
It's gonna be a long year.