President Obama’s reelection is in trouble because of the nation’s rocky economy, but he’s been exacerbating his problems by running a populist campaign at odds with the electoral strategy his advisers have laid out. Not only is his new rhetoric chastising the wealthy to pay their fair share at odds with the president’s well-crafted image of being a post-partisan uniter, but it risks alienating the white-collar professionals who have become an increasingly important part of a winning Democratic coalition.
The president’s team has been arguing that the path to reelection lies in winning diverse, white-collar battleground states like Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina—more-affluent states with growing numbers of independents. But the president’s latest rhetoric, pitting the affluent against the middle class, threatens to turn off the very independents he’s seeking to win back. It’s the type of populist message that’s better geared toward blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt, which the campaign is viewing as close to a lost cause.
Listen to Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who maxed out to Obama’s 2008 campaign and is a reliable contributor to Democratic candidates and causes. “Someone needs to talk our president down off of this rhetoric about good vs. evil; about two classes and math,” Leonsis wrote on his blog.
Polling data indicate that the situation isn’t encouraging for Team Obama. If the president’s advisers are optimistic that his path to reelection lies in the college-educated white electorate, he has a long way to go. Even after his jobs speech and campaign-style promotion, his numbers have been sagging.
Take Virginia, the linchpin of the president’s reelection strategy. A Quinnipiac Poll conducted last month found the president with a dismal 40 percent job approval rating in the Old Dominion—lower than his approval ratings the poll found in the Rust Belt battlegrounds of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Among independents, Obama’s job approval dropped to 29 percent—a remarkable 20-point fall from the 49 percent of the independent vote he won in Virginia. In prosperous Northern Virginia, where he won overwhelmingly with 64 percent in 2008, the poll found his approval rating had fallen to 40 percent.
Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg found similar results, surveying 60 of the leading Republican-held battleground House districts last month—many of which are in the affluent suburbs where Obama needs to do well. In these battlegrounds, Obama’s job approval is at 41 percent, and he trailed both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Only 32 percent of independents in these battlegrounds approved of Obama’s performance, with 60 percent disapproving. In 2008, Obama carried these battlegrounds with 52 percent of the vote.
In his memo, Greenberg added that individual elements of the Obama jobs plan polled favorably, and argued that his numbers could improve once he gets his message out. But while the verdict is still out, the early read isn’t encouraging.
In a Gallup Poll conducted last week, Republicans held a 9-point advantage over the Democrats on which party is best equipped to “keeping the country prosperous”—the largest GOP edge on the question since 2003. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Tuesday shows Obama hitting an all-time low in job approval. The Gallup daily tracking surveys have shown his job approval stuck in the low 40 percent range. Recent Quinnipiac polls in Ohio and Pennsylvania, conducted after the president’s jobs pitch, don’t show Obama gaining any ground.
Liberals have long argued a message calling for the wealthy to pay their fair share is broadly popular—and indeed, most polls show voters support abstract proposals calling for higher taxes on the rich. But it’s rarely worked in practice. If taxes were raised as part of a comprehensive economic plan raising revenues and cutting spending, that’s one thing. As part of a political argument designed to mobilize the base for his reelection campaign, it’s bound to be received less warmly. The fact that moderate congressional Democrats have been keeping an arm’s-length distance from the proposal is more telling about the plan’s popularity than polls testing different arguments, without context.
Part of the administration’s problem lies in its struggles to think past the week’s news cycle. If the Obama team recognized early that the deficit is a growing concern for many Americans, the president would have backed his own Simpson-Bowles commission deficit-reduction plan, spending some political capital on a touchy issue but taking it off the table and dividing Republicans in the process. Bill Clinton was the master of that type of triangulation.
Or if Obama paid closer attention to the polls that showed intense American economic anxiety, he may not have been as eager to proclaim earlier this year that he was getting the economy out of the ditch. Not only did he seem tone-deaf at the worst possible time, but it sidetracked the White House from focusing on jobs. If the president pitched a jobs plan focusing on tax-code reform and targeted infrastructure spending, he could have pivoted to jobs while appealing to the center.
These are the types of policies that could win back disaffected independents, frustrated with the slow pace of recovery but eager for the president to show leadership. But the fact that Obama instead unveiled a populist message while his campaign is seeking to win over upscale voters raises the question of whether the White House is in sync with the reelection campaign.
This article appears in the Oct. 5, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.