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AGAINST THE GRAIN

Obama, Not Holding the Center

An us-against-them message won't work in a center-right country.

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President Barack Obama boards Air Force One Tuesday, April 10, 2012, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)(AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

If President Obama loses reelection in November, the seeds of his defeat will have been planted in his fiery, populist campaign kickoff speech at the Associated Press luncheon last week. It was a negative, overly political address at sharp odds with his optimistic 2008 campaign message of hope and change. It seemed petty at times, mocking Mitt Romney for using the word “marvelous” and exaggerating proposed conservative entitlement reforms as “Social Darwinism.” All  of this while giving a supposedly nonpolitical, non-campaign address.

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Ideologically, the speech was a throwback to the Democratic rhetoric of decades past. Despite sops to Ronald Reagan, Obama laid out his ideological argument at the outset, stating his “belief that, through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” That’s a far cry from “the era of big government is over” mantra that President Clinton advanced in his reelection campaign.

In one sense, the speech previewed how fiercely the president’s team will be fighting for another term and how nasty the expected contest between Obama and Romney is likely to be. As Obama’s advisers have indicated, the president’s campaign strategy is to portray the opposition as so extreme that voters will hold their noses and vote for the incumbent even if they’re dissatisfied with the country’s direction. To eke out a victory in a slow-growing economy, Obama needs to turn out his base and turn off independents to Romney.

But the president is seriously miscalculating if he believes that the key to winning the hearts and minds of independents is “us-against-them” rhetoric that hails back to a bygone Democratic era. He ably mounted a withering attack on the Republicans' austerity proposals but offered no alternative vision to deal with the growing debt. When Clinton campaigned for a second term in 1996, he likewise castigated congressional Republicans for proposing entitlement cuts and shutting down the government, but he also championed a just-passed bipartisan welfare-reform law and a balanced budget that reduced the size of government. With Obama’s speech, there was no centrist recalibrating to reassure worried independents that he’s not too ideological; no sugar to sweeten the tough talk.

 

That’s no trivial concern, according to the results of a poll analyzing the sentiments of the swingiest independents from battleground states, commissioned by the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. The survey showed those voters narrowly favoring Obama (44 percent) over Romney (38 percent), and showed the president with respectable overall favorability scores. But it also revealed some red flags that if the campaign continues driving home the “people-versus-the-powerful” message, it could cost the president down the road. While these swing voters still like Obama personally, they are closer to Romney ideologically.

The polling found that a message centered on income inequality was a flop with these swing voters, who said they were much more anxious about rising debt and with regulations and taxes on businesses. A clear 57 percent majority said they thought the American economic system was “basically fair” and that the deck is not stacked against them. They didn’t primarily blame Wall Street or the wealthy for the country’s economic problems; they instead fingered congressional gridlock.  More than half (51 percent) of respondents said they preferred a candidate who advocates for an economy based on opportunity where “government lives within its means and economic growth is our top priority” while just 43 percent preferred a candidate backing “an economy based on fairness – where the rich pay their fair share, corporations play by the rules, and all Americans get a fair shot.” Those arguments closely mirror the Romney and Obama campaign messages unveiled last week, with the broad outlines of the GOP argument coming out on top.

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