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Obama’s Peculiar Reelection Strategy


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.
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?
You have to assume that the Obama team understands how immensely unappealing the promise of four more years of the politics of the past three years would be to the public. Maybe what they have put in place so far is a predicate for some policy proposals—perhaps a comprehensive tax reform, or some entitlement reforms that might scramble the ideological mix a bit. But that would seem to be in tension with the goal of creating conflicts with congress over economically populist ideas, and in tension with the president’s recent actions, appointments, proposals, and tone. It certainly doesn’t seem like he’s still planning fundamentally to pose as a centrist who wants to work with Republicans.
Maybe there’s another attempted image transformation in the works, though the past ones clearly haven’t worked very well. Maybe there’s another shoe to drop in the president’s confrontational populist agenda, which will turn it into a workable strategy. Or maybe the president and his team are just not very good at this. The evidence of the past three years would certainly seem to support the latter view. While they were able to masterfully carry off a campaign of airy fantasy in 2008, Obama and his advisers have since failed fairly spectacularly to employ the power of the president effectively. They now seem to be engaged in trying to generate another dramatic narrative out of thin air, but a re-election campaign can’t be such a creature of invention: It must necessarily be grounded in the reality of the president’s record and buttressed by the able employment of the president’s power. If the Obama team thinks it can turn the election into a referendum on the Republican candidate then they’ve got another thing coming, and if they think Obama can mount an ugly campaign of character assassination against his opponent and come away unscathed himself then they haven’t stopped to consider that his personal likability is the only thing keeping him from a total meltdown. So what’s the plan?
None of this is to say that Mitt Romney or whoever is the Republican nominee will have an easy time, of course. He will have his own significant weaknesses and vulnerabilities, no doubt, and he will need to offer the public an appealing governing vision and plausible solutions to the daunting problems we confront. Incumbents have some natural advantages, too, which even a hapless political strategy cannot completely eradicate. But this will be a very challenging year in which to run for re-election, and success will require a smart and effective strategy and a powerful case to the public. It so far frankly seems like the Obama campaign is lacking in both of those components, and is flailing about in the hope that American voters have finally at long last decided that they really hate rich people—a false misguided hope that has cost the Democrats many elections.