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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Obama Strategy May Work, Despite Polls, Economy

After the doomsayers and Pollyanna’s of both parties have all had their say, Ron Brownstein can be counted on for a sound analysis of the political moment in presidential politics. His current National Journal post, “Back to Basics: Can Barack Obama’s amplified populism galvanize the modern Democratic coalition?” provides a carefully-calibrated weighing of the challenges facing the Obama campaign. Brownstein explains:

Regardless of the Republican nominee, those on the Obama team recognize that their biggest obstacle is voter disappointment with his performance, particularly on the economy. They believe one of their biggest opportunities is that voters generally prefer the president’s ideas for dealing with jobs and the deficit over Republican alternatives. They understand that their biggest challenge is to improve the retrospective judgment about his performance while simultaneously encouraging voters to focus more on the prospective comparison with the GOP.
In most national surveys, Obama’s approval rating is running around 45 percent. (Some top Democrats worry that the actual number among likely voters is lower.) Even more ominous, more than two-thirds of Americans surveyed routinely say the country is on the wrong track, the highest level in decades. On both fronts, those numbers more resemble the profile of presidential losers than of winners.

As long as there is an electoral college, U.S. presidents will be elected by 50 different elections, which makes for a complicated calculus. As Brownstein says, “…Even senior Obama strategists acknowledge that they feel more confident about states where his approval rating reaches 47 percent or above.” Brownstein adds that the 47 percent approval figure is “the same number transfixing many Republicans.”
It’s always possible that the economy will pick up during the next year, but Brownstein notes that “…The glum conclusion inside the White House is that the economy isn’t likely to provide him much of a tailwind before Election Day.” Brownstein believes “The smaller-scale administrative initiatives he’s now consistently announcing may help only at the margin.”
But Brownstein does not dismiss the Obama campaign strategy, which he describes:

…Obama’s team is most optimistic about improving his ratings through the comparison with the eventual Republican nominee. That debate, they hope, will remind people of first-term accomplishments like the auto-industry rescue and shift attention toward ideas such as reducing the deficit through a mix of spending cuts and upper-income tax increases, which consistently outpolls the GOP’s cuts-only approach. Put another way, they hope that clarifying the choice will help them win the referendum…Obama strategists say that no matter whom the GOP nominates, the president will deliver the same core message: A Republican president would rubber-stamp the agenda of the GOP Congress and return to policies that caused the crash, favor the wealthy, and squeeze the middle class….

Brownstein recounts the weaknesses of the GOP presidential candidates, most notably Romney, whose “boardroom background” could alienate the largest swing constituency — blue collar whites — which is how Ted Kennedy whipped Romney in the ’94 Bay State Senate race. But Brownstein also cites political strategist Mark Penn’s argument that an over-emphasized “class warrior” message might alienate white collar workers who have been trending Democratic in recent elections.
Brownstein acknowledges that Republicans will “remind voters about the aspects of Obama’s term they like least–such as his stimulus failing to dent high unemployment.” But he leaves the door open for a possible Obama victory, concluding “Obama’s sharpening populism reaches back to his party’s traditions. Whether it can galvanize his party’s modern electoral coalition remains to be proven.”
I would only underscore that, despite historic precedents concerning approval ratings and unemployment rates, there are some major unprecedented factors bearing on the 2012 presidential election, which could be game-changers.
First, The entire GOP field is riddled with well-publicized vulnerabilities, personal and political. Secondly, we have never before seen a Republican party so hell-bent on legislative obstruction at all costs, and there are indications that this is not playing well with the middle class. Third, today’s GOP is more shamelessly devoted to protecting the wealth of multimillionaires from even modest tax increases than ever, contrary to overwhelming public support. Lastly, the public is well-aware that the Republican party is focused on destroying a sitting president as its openly-stated raison d’etre — even if it means voting against putting hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans to work fixing our dangerously decaying infrastructure.
it will take some skillful politicking to exploit these new factors effectively. But if Dems listen to the right strategists, these assets ought to be worth a few points in a close election.

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