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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tweaking Obama’s Message Strategy for ’12

Writing in Time magazine’s ‘Swampland’ blog, Michael Scherer takes an insightful look at President Obama’s messaging options, going forward into the 2012 elections. Schere quotes TDS Co-Editor Stanley Greenberg, pollster for President Bill Clinton, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Israel’s Ehud Barak, explaining that leaders have an instinct “to prove that their economic policies have worked.” But it’s only a good strategy when the economy is booming. Scherer adds,

In times of plenty, that gut feeling is right. The nation cheered the gangbusters growth under Ronald Reagan in 1984, and the mid-1990s Clinton economic boom. But when the economy is sour, politicians who litigate the past risk sounding tone-deaf to the troubles of the present. This is why Greenberg is now speaking up. He fears President Obama may make a huge mistake by trying to convince voters he saved the economy from a much worse fate. “No one is going to give you much credit for what you have done for this recovery,” says Greenberg, who has been testing messages in focus groups and polls for Democrats to use in the coming election. “Saying the economy is starting to make progress is bad.”

Scherer adds that recent projections of low economic growth (under 3%) and 8.5+% joblessness, with 4 out of 5 Americans rating the economy as “poor” pretty much end Obama’s hopes for running as an economic savior. Still, Scherer feels the president has a “backward-looking message” bragging about job-creation, which Greenberg also believes it is the wrong message at this juncture, as was the “car in the ditch” metaphor of last year.
Obama Advisor David Axelrod, on the other hand, argues that the president has to put the economy in historic context: He has to emphasize his economic accomplishments, as well as GOP responsibility for for the economic disaster he inherited and the current gridlock as part of the president’s message strategy.
According to Scherer, Greenberg’s polling indicates that economic discontent among voters goes back a decade and now they don’t want to hear assertions that the recovery is underway. Scherer reports that polling now indicates that they are more interested in “long-term fixes, like rebuilding the middle class and taking on China, or moving beyond the politics of blame.” He adds that “Obama has shifted to a message of ‘winning the future,’ pushing an ‘innovation’ agenda.”
The goal now for Obama strategists, says Scherer, is to avoid making the 2012 election “a referendum on the last three years” and get voters focused on which candidate is more qualified to lead America into the future. The Republicans are hoping to sell the meme that President Obama has failed to create jobs. As Stan Greenberg explains the challenge ahead, “If they make the election about ‘Did we get the stimulus right?,’ and we make the election about how to create jobs, we win that. That could be a trap for them.”

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