Marc has a smart rejoinder to my column this week, arguing that President Obama doesn't necessarily have to make a choice between a blue-collar and white-collar message (an Ohio versus Virginia strategy, as I called it.) As the Obama brain trust in Chicago seems to be saying, the president can walk and chew gum at the same time.
That may be true, but it also may be too clever by half. First off, the president's favored policies in the first term - cap-and-trade, health care law, a stimulus that hasn't created jobs -- have already alienated many blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt. His numbers were always weaker than most Democrats with white, non-college educated voters, dating back to the 2008 Democratic primaries. The first two years of his presidency may have baked that perception in the cake. So Obama runs the risk of trying to appeal to blue-collar voters when many have already tuned him out - and no amount of sounding populist, reversing ozone regulations or appealing to their innermost fears of a plutocratic Mitt Romney will change that.
Second, on the environment, the president's team has clearly calculated that he's lurched too much to the left on environmental regulation, as neatly outlined by the New York Times' John Broder yesterday. By reversing themselves on the ozone regulations - and releasing the news late on a Friday afternoon, when few are paying attention - the administration seemed to realize that there's a political cost to being seen as overzealous with environmental regulations - particularly with the very working-class voters they're now looking to win over.
The calculus with Keystone XL came down to Obama looking at the prospect an important part of his base break with him and publicly threaten to sit out the elections. The cost of inaction would be the less-public break of working-class voters wondering why the administration is punting on the pipeline They chose the former for obvious reasons but that doesn't mean it comes without a political cost.
Third, the president's political maneuvering is becoming more and more transparent - and that itself contains risk. Obama, who ran his 2008 campaign on making tough decisions, now is punting on a fairly straightforward decision on the energy pipeline for political reasons. Obama the deal-maker has transformed within several months to Obama the Truman-esque fighter. Obama, who pushed for environmental causes for much of his term, is now backtracking on some, in the wake of weak economy and public resistance to an overreaching government.