Obama's Reelection Report Card

The president's political strengths and weaknesses, as he opens the 2012 campaign

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As President Obama begins his reelection campaign, he faces an array of obstacles. The unifying theme that helped him win the 2008 election is a faint memory. Even if the economy grows briskly over the next 18 months, the unemployment rate is likely to remain above 8 percent on Election Day.

Consider this a preliminary report card regarding some of the president's challenges.

Political Identity: C. Who is this guy, and where does he want to take the country? Obama's hope-and-change platform in 2008 allowed people to fill in whatever details they wanted. This strategy served a little-known candidate, but it's untenable for an incumbent. Americans know that Obama has a vision--70 percent do, according to an April 9-10 CNN/Opinion Research poll of 824 adults.

But there are several obstacles for Obama. One is the bizarre birther phenomenon, which cuts both ways: It paints Republicans as crazy to independent voters; but it also provides an avenue for some voters to express views that might otherwise be taboo to discuss, perhaps about his race or his religion.

Separate from the birther constellation is a cluster of beliefs with fairly high magnitude. Obama's style is conciliatory and concessional. Even liberals don't seem to know precisely where Obama wants to lead them. It's not a question of goals; it's a question of guts. Where will he fight? Perhaps his new deficit-cutting plan will show the way. This grade, incidentally, is given without reference to his potential opponents. Throw a Republican with an identity crisis into this mix and Obama's grade rises.

Campaign Team: A. Obama's reelection team is experienced, trusted, and not riven by the usual infighting that besets campaigns. It's true that they're cocky, but after any number of near-death experiences with health care and other issues, their hubris is a bit more muted. It must here be noted that several potential GOP opponents -- notably Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney -- are putting together A-list campaign teams too.

Leadership: C. Americans are not sure about Obama's leadership skills. A small majority see him as a leader, a number that has been in steady decline since he was elected, according to a Gallup poll of 1027 adults that was conducted March 25-27. Fewer than half think he can manage the government (see CNN/OPR poll).

One version of the case posits that Obama has spent way too much time blaming predecessors even as he continued Bush policies, from TARP to Guantanamo Bay. His leadership skills tie into his political identity. He seems rudderless at times. His advisers will say that Obama wants to fix problems and is a pragmatist, and that external events have made it all but impossible to chart a straight course and follow it. That may be true, but the challenge is to convince the American people that this style of governing is the right one.

Attributes and Values: A. Americans like Obama; they trust that he wants the best for them--even if they don't quite know what that is; they see him as honest, on their side, and likable (see Gallup). This will be a significant asset. It helped carry President Bush to reelection in 2004.

Organization: A. Regardless of whether there's a drop-off in volunteer intensity early on, there's no question that Obama's reelection operation will be formidable and well-funded enough to compete with whatever Republicans are able to construct. This includes outside groups who will try to chip away at Obama in battleground states. Democrats will have well-financed vehicles of their own.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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