Published in the New York Post on April 9, 2012
The shape of President Obama’s re-election strategy is coming clear. The key elements:
1) Don’t run on your record; run as if there were no incumbent
2) Stress class warfare; exploit fear of Republican spending cuts. Harp on the negatives.
3) Hide the negatives about your record in a miasma of general pessimism. (Medicare was broken before we got here; headwinds slowed the economy.)
It’s hard to see how this works. Economic populism has never been able to reach more than about 40 percent of the American electorate. And the only modern incumbent to run away from his record and win was Harry Truman in the aftermath of World War II and the Roosevelt era.
So what are the people around Obama thinking?
They seem to be betting that a decided shift in our political culture in the past decade has transformed class envy and save-government-spending demagoguery into a way to win a majority.
The Democratic Party’s left has long believed in this strategy. In the 1996 Clinton re-election campaign, moderates squared off against economic populists and won the day. The likes of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pushed populist remedies, but the polling never showed that this rhetoric would suffice to win a majority. (Yes, Clinton used some of their arguments to get elected in 1992 — but he only had to win 43 percent of the vote to prevail, because Ross Perot made it a three-way race.)
Has our culture changed that much since? Are the partisan divisions so entrenched and hatred of the other side so pronounced that a divisive campaign, a la Richard Nixon in 1968, can win? We don’t know yet.
Perhaps Obama’s people have polling that suggests things are different now — that the country is so embittered and divided that sunny optimism and appeals to national unity strike a false note with voters.
Alternately, it may all just be an attempt to revive the 2008 Obama coalition by igniting divisive passions to amplify turnout among his old base.
Note that Obama regularly draws 49 percent to 52 percent of registered voters in national polls against Romney — but does far worse when the poll is limited to the smaller pool of likely voters, trailing Romney 47 percent to 45 percent (Rasmussen) or tied at 47 (Bloomberg).
That gap illustrates Obama’s central problem: turnout.
He won in 2008 because blacks rose from 11 percent of the vote to 14 percent, Latino participation rose from 7 percent to 8.5 percent, and the under-30 voters dramatically increased their turnout as well.
His ratings among African-Americans remain high, but the prospects for a heavy turnout are diminished. And (according to Rasmussen) his approval among Latinos is down to 41 percent and among under-30 voters to 54 percent.
Obama’s appeals to fear, envy and class antagonisms haven’t been working lately. But even if they start to, he’s sacrificing the themes of optimism and hope.
A dour, bitter Obama, lashing out at the rich and peddling fear of the Republicans, can’t compete with a sunny, smiling Mitt Romney. He’s largely stuck talking about who Romney is — an unbecoming attack line that doesn’t inspire faith in a national leader.
Were we France or Italy, perhaps this rhetoric would fall on receptive ears conditioned by years of discord. Here in America? Not yet.
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