President Obama’s reelection is in trouble because of the nation’s troubled 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 that have become an increasingly important part of a winning Democratic coalition.
The president’s team has been arguing that their path to reelection lies in winning battleground states like Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina—diverse, more affluent white-collar states with growing numbers of independents. But the president’s emphasis on pitting the affluent against the middle-class threatens to push away 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 sees as close to a lost cause.
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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. “Our country was founded on the premise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Is anyone happy right now with all of this?”
Poring through the polling data, the answer isn’t encouraging for Team Obama. If the president’s path to reelection lies in the college-educated white electorate, he has a long way to go to win them back. Even after his jobs speech and campaign-style promotion, his numbers have been sagging.
Take Virginia, the linchpin to the president’s reelection strategy. In a poll conducted last month, Quinnipiac found the president with a dismal 40 percent job-approval rating in the Old Dominion—lower than his approval ratings in the Rust Belt battlegrounds of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Among independents, his job approval dropped to 29 percent—a remarkable 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 had fallen to 40 percent.
Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg found similar results last month surveying 60 of the leading Republican-held battleground House districts—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 districts approved of Obama’s performance, with 60 percent disapproving. In 2008, Obama carried the districts 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 across. But while the verdict is still out, the early read isn’t encouraging.
In a Gallup poll conducted last week, Republicans held a nine-point advantage over the Democrats on which party is best equipped for “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.