Why Obama's Team Is Worried

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Nerves show as the president's 2012 reelection prospects appear uncertain amid a lagging economy

Obama by Marine One - Larry Downing Reuters - banner.jpg

It's been a rough June for the White House. Instead of being able to run a campaign taking credit for economic improvement, President Obama will, according to the latest forecasts, be trying to win four more years amid a grim economy next year. The president's reelection team, once hoping to run on a "Morning in America" theme now doesn't have that luxury. No wonder, the president's advisers over the past month have been making moves that suggest they're awfully concerned about his prospects:

1. Searching for an economic message. Veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg recently offered perceptive advice to the president's team by criticizing its "getting the car out of the ditch" metaphor meant to suggest the economy is slowly improving. As Greenberg wrote: "People thought they still were in the ditch."

This is a time when the president needs to find his inner Bill Clinton, and feel Americans' pain. If he wants to be one of the few presidents to win reelection in a stagnant economy, he'll have to devote less time to defending past policies, like the auto bailout, and more to offering specific solutions to help people get back to work. Think a 21st century version of FDR's fireside chats.

But there are few signs that the president's economic messaging has changed. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently said Democrats own the economy, but they don't seem to be adapting their message to the bad economy likely to face them in November 2012.

2. Doubling down on manufacturing. The latest White House effort to wring good news out of a bad economy focuses on successes in the manufacturing sector: the auto bailout that put GM and Chrysler on sounder footing, as well as green initiatives.

Politically, it's a puzzling message. While there has been a small uptick in manufacturing jobs, it's hardly enough to be felt by the blue-collar electorate, who have been bearing the brunt of the recession and never viewed Obama too favorably in the first place. The latest Gallup weekly tracking poll shows Obama's approval with college graduates at 51 percent, with a 40 percent approval among nongraduates.

The president's emphasis on green jobs doesn't help. It's tough for many steelworkers to see themselves producing solar panels. Clean-energy jobs may be the future, but they're not seen by displaced workers as a panacea.

Instead, Obama's key to winning reelection is solidifying his support with college-educated whites, a swing demographic that has been more receptive to his message, along with high turnout among minorities. His key to victory is rallying white-collar professionals in swing-state suburbs, like Fairfax/Loudoun County, Va.; Wake County, N.C.; Franklin County, Ohio; Bucks County, Pa.; Clark County, Nev.--none hotbeds of manufacturing.

(PICTURES: Obama's Aides at White House Press Conference)

3. Fresh fundraising concerns. With a strong connection to the grassroots and expertise with social networking, President Obama's reelection team mastered the art of hitting up small donors in the 2008 campaign.

But there are telltale signs that the grassroots army that propelled him is in a much less giving mood. It's not a huge surprise; the bad economy has hit Obama's small donors too. When you're having trouble paying the bills, you're not exactly pining to pitch in hard-earned money to help a powerful president.

A sign Team Obama is looking elsewhere: A Los Angeles Times report that Obama's reelection team is already asking wealthy donors to commit the maximum $75,800 to the president's campaign funds.

If Obama's re-election starts looking more difficult next year, donors may well be inclined to give to the Democratic Senate and House campaign arms, seeing them as the better investment. But if they're locked in with early maximum donations to the president's re-election, that won't be doable.

4. Raising the stakes in the upper South. Obama's strategists are raising the stakes in the two battleground upper South states, North Carolina and Virginia.

They've never been critical cogs in a presidential strategy. If Team Obama sees them as such in 2012, it suggests the campaign is struggling in states that were comfortably on its side in 2008, particularly those in the Rust Belt.

When I interviewed leading Democratic and Republican strategists about the states toughest for Obama to hold, most were pessimistic about his prospects in North Carolina, a state that he won by just 14,000 votes.

Publicly, his strategists are arguing that the Tar Heel State's growing numbers of college-educated suburbanites and minorities plays to Obama's advantage. It's no coincidence the Democrats are holding next year's convention in Charlotte.

But if North Carolina looks like a challenge, Virginia looks within Obama's grasp. Unemployment in the Old Dominion is far lower than most battleground states, and the growth of government jobs in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and a diversifying population play to the Democrats' favor.

Not everyone on the Democratic side is as optimistic, however. One senior Democratic operative involved with key Virginia races believes Obama would need an African-American turnout close to his historic 2008 levels to win--a tough task in a down economy.

"When folks start to depend on recreating a specific snapshot in time, it is most always a disappointment," the strategist said.

Image credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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