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Obama, Not Holding the Center

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

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.

“Swing Independents are searching for leaders who will articulate a positive vision for the future – one where the American economy is back on top and the next generation can achieve the American Dream,” the Third Way memo reads. “Economic opportunity is a framework that responds to their anxieties and is associated with strengthening and growing the economy.”

Extremism is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats are confident that Romney’s embrace of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s sweeping Medicare reforms is a colossal political blunder, and they marvel at the possibility that Ryan could even be his running mate. But this survey, consistent with Gallup polling illustrating a center-right electorate, suggests that voters more closely identify with the overarching Republican message of an opportunity society over the Democratic message centered on economic security. 

Obama is misinterpreting the lessons of Clinton’s successful campaign in 1996, simply believing that he can cast Romney and Ryan in the roles of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich.  Then, as now, the Republican Congress lurched to the right, giving the president ample opportunity to both own the center and rebrand himself as a new Democrat, while still offering a sharp contrast with the opposition.  Obama’s got his attacks against Republican down pat, but he’s forgotten about moving to the middle.  Despite claiming that he’s governed as a moderate, Obama has rarely broken ranks with his party’s congressional leadership, as Clinton did with NAFTA and welfare reform. Merely mounting a reactionary defense of the way things have been done in the past isn’t enough anymore. 

Making things even tougher for Obama is that the country has inched to the right over the last 15 years. Then, Clinton could hammer Republicans over opposing environmental regulations, which polled exceptionally well. It was a driving force behind the Clinton comeback in 1996. But in a down economy, Obama’s similar attacks aren’t having the same impact. The party’s cap-and-trade vote in the House, designed to regulate carbon emissions in a market-friendly fashion, was a driving force behind Democratic congressional losses in the Rust Belt during the 2010 midterms. There’s a reason why formerly environmentally minded Republicans (such as Romney and Gingrich!) have sharply tacked to the right. They’ve moved along with the public.

Much of this presidential campaign’s coverage has focused on style over substance – Romney’s Etch A Sketch moment and Obama’s hot mic, to name a few recent examples.  But every indication is that this general election will be one of the most ideological in many years, with both candidates embracing the core argument of their increasingly homogeneous parties’ bases. Obama may be confident that he can persuade voters with the power of the bully pulpit, but if the message is off, the pulpit won’t do him much good.

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