The president's political strengths and weaknesses, as he opens the 2012 campaign
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.
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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.
Position Relative to His Opposition: B. The Republican field is unleavened at best. The all-but-declared Republican candidates (Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty) all have significant, if resolvable, flaws. Some of those thought to be considering the race -- from Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to Donald Trump -- threaten to pull the GOP off its rails. Dark-horse challenges could make the field rougher, especially Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana.
Domestic Issues: C. The House Republican embrace of transforming Medicare under the plan put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is a godsend to the Obama team. Social issues don't seem to matter, as Obama himself noted on Thursday night. But Obama still faces formidable challenges. The economy, while moving in the right direction, is still sputtering. And one shouldn't underestimate the GOP's ability to portray Obama as a tax-raiser even if he is only proposing to restore higher income tax rates on wealthier earners. Keep an eye on the housing market and on gas prices as well as on personal income growth per capita -- a favorite statistic used by the Bushies to determine economic satisfaction. Obama is performing at roughly the Bill Clinton level in the comparable time period on questions about which political agent Americans trust more to handle domestic problems. (See CNN/USA Today/Gallup Trends data.)
Foreign issues: B. He continues the Bush war in Afghanistan and drew down the one in Iraq while joining one against Libya. There's no crowning achievement like a Middle East peace deal. Guantanamo Bay remains open. Independents liked Obama because he promised to repair America's relationship with the world and raise its standing. He has done that. He will remind independents of this. It will probably work. Obama's proposed defense cuts are going to be troubling to voters in the industrial Midwest and the Intermountain West.
Relations With Party Base: B. This is a hard one to grade. There are several different Democratic bases and they don't seem to overlap. The progressive elites, those who follow politics around the clock and have venues to broadcast their views, think Obama has abandoned core Democratic principles. Rank-and-file Democrats seem to be modestly influenced by these complaints. Republican elites have more influence over their base than Democratic elites, for a variety of reasons.
Among Democrats, Obama's job approval is about 5 percentage points away from where he needs to be. Three-fourths of self-identified liberals approve of Obama's performance to date. He needs these numbers to be higher. Liberal white Democrats and African-Americans are solid Obama supporters. But Obama's approval rating has dropped significantly among Latino voters (73 percent when he was elected; 54 percent now, according to Gallup), and slightly among younger voters (ages 18 to 29) who were hardest hit by the economic sluggishness. While 55 percent among this group is stronger than it was half a year ago, according to a huge Institute of Politics poll released last week, it needs to be higher. Still, in the absence of a Republican foil, these are generally sufficient numbers for the president. At this point in 1995, more than 4 in 10 Democrats wanted a primary challenger for Bill Clinton; fewer than 2 in 10 do for Obama.
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