Politics: White House

Obama Speaks at the WH Cinco de Mayo Reception

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May 5, 2011, 3:42 p.m.

A High Point Univ. poll; con­duc­ted 9/25-30; sur­veyed 400 adults; mar­gin of er­ror +/- 4.9% (re­lease, 10/8).

Obama As POTUS

Ap­prove 38% Dis­ap­prove 55

Per­due As Gov.

Ap­prove 36% Dis­ap­prove 43

Dir­ec­tion Of U.S.

Right dir. 26% Wrong dir. 68

House Gen­er­al Elec­tion Match­up

Gen­er­ic GOP­er 42% Gen­er­ic Dem 39 Un­dec 17

Last March, I ar­gued that Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er (R), fa­cing ma­jor op­pos­i­tion to his wide-reach­ing budget­ary changes, was los­ing ground be­cause he fo­cused on num­ber-crunch­ing rather than present­ing a vis­ion. With nine months to go un­til Elec­tion Day, the en­tire Re­pub­lic­an Party risks fall­ing prey to the same dy­nam­ic. The GOP could lose a win­nable pres­id­en­tial race and fail to gain con­trol of the Sen­ate be­cause of a tim­id mes­sage: “The oth­er guys are worse than us.”

The mod­us op­erandi of Re­pub­lic­an strategists has been to de­pend on a stag­nant eco­nomy and lay the blame on Pres­id­ent Obama and the Demo­crats in Con­gress. Now, with a Janu­ary jobs re­port sug­gest­ing signs of life in the labor mar­ket, that strategy sorely needs re­boot­ing. A pre­vent de­fense rarely works in foot­ball, and it hardly ever works in polit­ics.

The latest na­tion­al polling shows clear signs that voters per­ceive im­prove­ment. This week, Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing hit 50 per­cent for the first time since May 2011 (after the killing of Osama bin Laden) in a newly re­leased ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey. A bare ma­jor­ity, 53 per­cent, dis­ap­prove of his hand­ling of the eco­nomy, down a sig­ni­fic­ant 9 points from Septem­ber. When asked wheth­er Obama or GOP pres­id­en­tial front-run­ner Mitt Rom­ney would do bet­ter hand­ling the eco­nomy and cre­at­ing jobs — the two ma­jor vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies for the pres­id­ent — Rom­ney only holds a 2- and 3-point ad­vant­age. Red flags abound.

In­stead of lever­aging their ideo­lo­gic­al ad­vant­age with a cen­ter-right elect­or­ate, Re­pub­lic­ans are run­ning in place. Polls show that a mes­sage of growth trumps one of fair­ness, but Re­pub­lic­ans have fo­cused their cri­ti­cisms of the pres­id­ent on his stew­ard­ship of the eco­nomy, not his ideas. Des­pite the health care law’s un­pop­ular­ity, they hardly bring it up any­more. It took a week for the Rom­ney cam­paign to go after Obama for an ex­ec­ut­ive branch de­cision pro­hib­it­ing char­it­ies and hos­pit­als from opt­ing out of the law’s con­tra­cep­tion-cov­er­age re­quire­ment — a lit­mus is­sue for many re­li­gious voters, es­pe­cially Cath­ol­ics.

Be­hind the scenes, Rom­ney’s top ad­visers are en­gaged in a vig­or­ous de­bate over the most ef­fect­ive mes­sage against Obama. On one side are strategists who ar­gue that he needs to win the em­ploy­ment dis­cus­sion, em­phas­iz­ing that he ad­ded jobs to the eco­nomy while at Bain Cap­it­al and as gov­ernor of Mas­sachu­setts. They worry that, un­der close scru­tiny, Rom­ney risks los­ing that ar­gu­ment — and with it, his ra­tionale for win­ning the pres­id­ency: that he is bet­ter equipped to handle the eco­nomy.

Oth­er strategists be­lieve that fo­cus­ing on Rom­ney’s busi­ness re­cord is back­ward-look­ing, and that the most im­port­ant ar­gu­ment is over two con­trast­ing vis­ions for the U.S. eco­nomy. With his busi­ness back­ground, Rom­ney is well-equipped to talk about the be­ne­fits of the free mar­ket and vis­ions of growth over in­creased gov­ern­ment spend­ing.

The idea/ideo­lo­gic­al wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party is right on the polit­ics. For all the cri­ti­cism Obama has got­ten from the right over his fair­ness mes­sage, ask­ing the wealthy to pay more in taxes to be­ne­fit the middle class is at least a com­pel­ling ar­gu­ment. He’s us­ing the bully pul­pit to show lead­er­ship on the cent­ral is­sues on Amer­ic­ans’ minds. This pres­id­en­tial elec­tion fea­tures two very dif­fer­ent vis­ions of the coun­try’s fu­ture, and voters ex­pect to hear how con­ser­vat­ive policies can im­prove the eco­nomy. They need what Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush fam­ously called “that vis­ion thing.”

The timid­ity is also re­flect­ive in the Sen­ate land­scape, which looked like a lost cause for Demo­crats just a month ago. Now, the ex­pect­a­tions are that con­trol of the Sen­ate will go down to the wire, with Re­pub­lic­ans look­ing more likely to gain three or four seats rather than lever­aging their clear struc­tur­al ad­vant­age for a defin­it­ive GOP vic­tory. Re­pub­lic­ans are favored in con­ser­vat­ive-friendly states such as North Dakota, Neb­raska, Mis­souri, and Montana. But GOP can­did­ates face stiff chal­lenges in un­seat­ing in­cum­bents in the battle­grounds of Flor­ida and Ohio, for in­stance, and have their hands full in open-seat Vir­gin­ia and Wis­con­sin races.

The party re­cruited a tal­en­ted crop of can­did­ates. Former Sen. George Al­len in the Old Domin­ion, former Rep. Heath­er Wilson in New Mex­ico, former Rep. Pete Hoek­stra in Michigan, and former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle have strong gov­ern­ing re­sumes, are proven cam­paign­ers, and can raise sig­ni­fic­ant amounts of money. But that “former” la­bel raises red flags. In­stead of in­fus­ing new blood in­to the Sen­ate by re­cruit­ing prom­ising up-and-comers in the mold of  Flor­ida Sen. Marco Ru­bio, Re­pub­lic­ans are re­cyc­ling their best and bright­est from the 1990s.

Either way, it paints a pic­ture that’s much more muddled than it was just a couple months ago. There’s now a plaus­ible path to a second term for Obama and to con­tin­ued Demo­crat­ic con­trol of the Sen­ate. Un­til Re­pub­lic­ans draw sharp­er con­trasts with the op­pos­i­tion and start identi­fy­ing their new lead­ers of to­mor­row, the status quo may well pre­vail in Novem­ber.

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