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May 1, 2011, 8:32 p.m.

A Fox News poll; con­duc­ted 10/9 by Pulse Opin­ion Re­search (IVR); sur­veyed 1,000 LVs; mar­gin of er­ror +/- 3.1% (re­lease, 10/12). Party ID break­down: 39%D, 35%R, 26%I. Note: Pulse Opin­ion Re­search uses “meth­od­o­logy and pro­ced­ures li­censed from” Rasmussen Re­ports (IVR).

Obama As POTUS

- All Dem GOP Ind Men Wom 10/2 9/18 Ap­prove 40% 71% 11% 30% 37% 42% 44% 40% Dis­ap­prove 55 19 88 65 59 52 52 52

(For more from this poll, please see today’s NV SEN story.)

If elec­tions were judged on per­son­al­ity alone, Re­pub­lic­an front-run­ner Mitt Rom­ney would have his hands full against Pres­id­ent Obama. In­deed, as Rom­ney comes closer to lock­ing up the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion, polit­ic­al com­ment­at­ors and Demo­crat­ic strategists alike are be­gin­ning to ad­vance the ar­gu­ment that his re­served, bor­der­ing-on-stiff per­son­al­ity is pain­fully sim­il­ar to that of two re­cent Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial losers, and it bodes poorly for his chances against a more likable Obama in 2012.

The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Dana Mil­bank ar­gues that Rom­ney is the “polit­ic­al re­in­carn­a­tion” of 2000 Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Al Gore, dis­play­ing “pedant­ic tend­en­cies” and nev­er seem­ing com­fort­able in pub­lic. And Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives are com­par­ing Rom­ney to 2004 nom­in­ee John Kerry, be­liev­ing that just as Re­pub­lic­ans neut­ral­ized Kerry’s greatest as­set (mil­it­ary ser­vice in Vi­et­nam) with with­er­ing at­tacks, they can do the same with Rom­ney’s man­age­ment back­ground by high­light­ing the most dam­aging as­pects of his re­cord at private equity firm Bain Cap­it­al. Not to men­tion the flip-flops.

Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom holds that Kerry lost in 2004 be­cause he was “Swift Boated” by Re­pub­lic­an trick­sters, and Gore’s aloof­ness was the main factor blamed for hold­ing him back. In real­ity, they both lost be­cause they aban­doned Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s cent­rist co­ali­tion and ran well to the left of the elect­or­ate’s cen­ter. At a time of prosper­ity, Gore played the class-war­fare card, ad­van­cing the “people versus the power­ful” meme echoed in Obama’s cur­rent mes­sage. Kerry was ranked the most lib­er­al sen­at­or in Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s vote rat­ings, nev­er dis­tanced him­self from the party base, and was hampered with his dovish for­eign-policy views at a time of war.

That’s in­struct­ive to re­mem­ber as Obama’s reelec­tion team tries to make the ar­gu­ment that Rom­ney’s up­per-crust back­ground and lack of com­mon-man ap­peal will be sig­ni­fic­ant obstacles for him. For all his styl­ist­ic flaws, Rom­ney is much closer to the elect­or­ate’s cen­ter than his part­ners in stiff­ness, Kerry, Gore, and yes, Obama. Des­pite his party’s de­mands for con­ser­vat­ive ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity, Rom­ney hasn’t been run­ning very far to the right in the primary, thanks to a splintered con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion, and he is still en­sconced in the cen­ter-right sweet spot that wins elec­tions.

A look at three re­cent polls test­ing where voters stand ideo­lo­gic­ally should give Obama’s team pause in view­ing a match­up against Rom­ney.

Ex­hib­it A: In late Decem­ber, Gal­lup tested how Amer­ic­ans viewed their own ideo­lo­gic­al dis­pos­i­tion (on a scale of one to five, one be­ing the most lib­er­al), while also ask­ing them to rate the ideo­lo­gies of all the lead­ing pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. Rom­ney scored very close to the ideo­lo­gic­al av­er­age of 3.3, com­ing in at 3.5. Obama, by con­trast, scored a 2.3, a full point more lib­er­al than the av­er­age. To most Amer­ic­ans, the pres­id­ent is viewed as more lib­er­al than Rep. Michele Bach­mann is as con­ser­vat­ive.

Ex­hib­it B: A Gal­lup Poll con­duc­ted in late Novem­ber and early Decem­ber shows Amer­ic­ans greatly prefer the gov­ern­ment to “grow and ex­pand the eco­nomy” over ad­van­cing policies that re­duce the in­come gap between the rich and the poor. Only 46 per­cent of voters sur­veyed strongly sup­por­ted policies to tackle in­come in­equal­ity; 82 per­cent strongly sup­por­ted policies ad­van­cing eco­nom­ic growth.

Ex­hib­it C: A clear plur­al­ity of Amer­ic­ans identi­fy them­selves as con­ser­vat­ive (40 per­cent) — more than the num­ber of mod­er­ates (35 per­cent) and nearly twice as many as self-iden­ti­fied lib­er­als (21 per­cent) — in a Gal­lup Poll sur­vey­ing data throughout 2011. Even among Demo­crats, more voters con­sider them­selves mod­er­ate or con­ser­vat­ive (58 per­cent) than lib­er­al (39 per­cent).

It’s that polit­ic­al ty­po­logy that’s set­ting the stage for the 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, one that is go­ing to of­fer voters a stark choice between two very dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic philo­sophies. This isn’t go­ing to be a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign won or lost on style points; it will be lit­ig­ated on sub­stance.

Obama un­veiled his vis­ion last month in Kan­sas, call­ing for an act­ive gov­ern­ment­al role to level the un­fair­ness of grow­ing in­come in­equal­ity. He lam­basted “breath­tak­ing greed” as a ma­jor source of the eco­nom­ic prob­lems. While short on spe­cif­ic pre­scrip­tions, Obama’s vis­ion is in line with a tra­di­tion­al, pre-Clin­ton Demo­crat­ic eco­nom­ic nar­rat­ive that struggled to get much trac­tion in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rom­ney, after win­ning the New Hamp­shire primary last Tues­day, offered his coun­ter­punch. Ac­cus­ing the pres­id­ent of put­ting “free en­ter­prise on tri­al,” Rom­ney said in his vic­tory speech that he would un­apo­lo­get­ic­ally de­fend the Amer­ic­an ideals of eco­nom­ic free­dom. He called for the elim­in­a­tion of reg­u­la­tions he saw as waste­ful, in­clud­ing the re­peal of Obama’s health care law.

The polling sug­gests that Rom­ney holds the polit­ic­al high card on this ar­gu­ment, and it will take scath­ing at­tacks por­tray­ing Rom­ney as a heart­less cap­it­al­ist to dent his ideo­lo­gic­al ad­vant­age. The prob­lem for Obama is that he’s burdened with his own re­cord of be­ing un­able to turn around a stag­nant eco­nomy, which will give the Rom­ney cam­paign plenty of am­muni­tion to use against him.

If the 2012 elec­tion were be­ing waged dur­ing pros­per­ous times, Rom­ney’s vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies would be glar­ing. But the bur­den is on Obama to per­suade a skep­tic­al elect­or­ate to em­brace a mes­sage centered on in­come in­equal­ity as the path to get­ting the eco­nomy back on track. And that’s a big­ger hurdle to over­come than Rom­ney’s awk­ward­ness.

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