What Are Obama’s Folks Thinking?

As President Barack Obama’s re-election strategy takes shape before our eyes, it appears to involve several key elements:

1. Do not run on your record; run as if there were no incumbent.

2. Stress class warfare, negatives and fear of GOP cuts.

3. Subsume negatives about his record in a miasma of general pessimism. (Medicare was broken before we got here. Headwinds slowed the economy.)

Will it work? Most likely not. Economic populism has never been able to reach more than about 40 percent of the American electorate. And the only modern incumbent to run away from his record and win was Harry Truman in the aftermath of the Roosevelt era.

So what are the people around Obama thinking?

They seem to be betting that a decided shift in the American political culture in the past decade has made class envy, fear of government-spending cuts, and a distrust of wealth into a way to win a majority.

The Democratic Party’s left has long believed in this strategy. In the Clinton re-election campaign, moderates squared off against economic populists and won the day. The likes of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich were busy pushing populist remedies, but the polling never showed that this rhetoric would suffice to win a majority. (In 1992, when Clinton used their arguments to get elected, he had to win only 43 percent of the vote to prevail because Perot made it a three-way race.)

Has our culture changed that much since? Are the partisan divisions so entrenched and hatred of the other side so pronounced that a divisive campaign, a la Richard Nixon in 1968, can win? We don’t know yet.

Obviously, the Obama polling suggests that things are very different now. Obama’s own failures have, their reasoning must go, left the country so embittered and divided that sunny optimism and national unity strike a false note with voters.

We don’t think so. We believe that Obama is attempting to re-create his 2008 electoral coalition by igniting divisive passions to amplify turnout among his former base of voters. It is interesting to note that while Obama regularly draws 49 to 52 percent of registered voters in national polls against Mitt Romney, he does far worse among likely voters, trailing Romney 47 to 45 percent according to Rasmussen or tied at 47 percent on Bloomberg.

The gap between his polling among registered voters and the 60 percent who are likely voters, illustrates Obama’s central problem: voter turnout.

He won in 2008 because black turnout rose form 11 percent of the vote to 14 percent; Latino participation rose from 7 to 8.5 percent, and the under-30 voters dramatically increased their turnout as well.

Now while his ratings among African-Americans remain high, the prospects for a heavy turnout are diminished, and his approval among Latinos is down to 41 percent (Rasmussen) and among under-30 voters to 54 percent (Rasmussen).

So in an effort to juice the turnout, Obama is resorting to fear, envy and class antagonisms, strategies that haven’t been working for him lately.

But, in the process, he sacrifices optimism and hope. A dour, bitter Obama, lashing out at the rich and peddling fear of the Republicans, cannot compete with a sunny, smiling, optimistic Romney. Were Rick Santorum the adversary, Obama could run on what his opponent would do in the area of reproductive rights. But with Romney, he is largely stuck talking about who he is — an attack line that is not becoming and that does not inspire faith in a national leader.

Were we France or Italy, perhaps this rhetoric would fall on receptive ears conditioned by years of discord. But here in America? Not yet.

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