Obama's Biggest Opponent: Voters

Unless the president can get his approval rating up to 50 percent before Election Day, it may not matter if he faces Romney or Perry

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All the turmoil in the Republican presidential race has President Obama's campaign brain trust focusing on fundamentals.

Regardless of the Republican nominee, those on the Obama team recognize that their biggest obstacle is voter disappointment with his performance, particularly on the economy. They believe one of their biggest opportunities is that voters generally prefer the president's ideas for dealing with jobs and the deficit over Republican alternatives. They understand that their biggest challenge is to improve the retrospective judgment about his performance while simultaneously encouraging voters to focus more on the prospective comparison with the GOP.

In most national surveys, Obama's approval rating is running around 45 percent. (Some top Democrats worry that the actual number among likely voters is lower.) Even more ominous, more than two-thirds of Americans surveyed routinely say the country is on the wrong track, the highest level in decades. On both fronts, those numbers more resemble the profile of presidential losers than of winners.

Most political strategists agree that given today's cynicism about politicians, incumbents can now win reelection with an approval rating of less than 50 percent, the historic danger line. The question is how much less. Inside Obama's camp, some talk optimistically about winning states with ratings scarcely above 40 percent--so long as voters dislike the Republican candidate even more.

Things always change in politics, but that would defy history. And even senior Obama strategists acknowledge that they feel more confident about states where his approval rating reaches 47 percent or above. That's the same number transfixing many Republicans. "It's very difficult for a president to get reelected if their job approval is less than 47 percent in a two-way race," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said at a National Journal conference this week.

It's not beyond Obama to hit that mark (some polls already put him there). But he's not guaranteed to get (or stay) there, either. The glum conclusion inside the White House is that the economy isn't likely to provide him much of a tailwind before Election Day. The smaller-scale administrative initiatives he's now consistently announcing may help only at the margin.

Obama's team is most optimistic about improving his ratings through the comparison with the eventual Republican nominee. That debate, they hope, will remind people of first-term accomplishments like the auto-industry rescue and shift attention toward ideas such as reducing the deficit through a mix of spending cuts and upper-income tax increases, which consistently outpolls the GOP's cuts-only approach. Put another way, they hope that clarifying the choice will help them win the referendum. Of course, Republicans will use that same debate to remind voters about the aspects of Obama's term they like least--such as his stimulus failing to dent high unemployment.

Unless Obama can rebuild his approval rating above 50 percent, which seems unlikely without faster economic growth, he'll win reelection only by convincing several million voters currently disappointed in him that they would like the Republican alternative even less. That points toward a bruising year.

Obama strategists say that no matter whom the GOP nominates, the president will deliver the same core message: A Republican president would rubber-stamp the agenda of the GOP Congress and return to policies that caused the crash, favor the wealthy, and squeeze the middle class. Against any Republican, Obama appears determined to stress the populist notes he's amplified lately about economic inequality.

But the GOP alternatives will provide very different contexts for those arguments. Obama's team hasn't thought much about a matchup against Herman Cain--which appears even less necessary now with him floundering in a sexual-harassment controversy. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, they believe, might be a stronger competitor than Mitt Romney for blue-collar whites and Latinos but ease Obama's recovery with economically discontented white-collar whites who still generally prefer that their president believe in evolution. The former Massachusetts governor offers the inverse equation: Although his boardroom background may play well in white-collar suburbs, it could alienate blue-collar whites if Obama can portray him as embodying cutthroat corporate greed.

The late Edward Kennedy sold a similar argument when beating Romney in a Massachusetts Senate race in 1994. But it would be an enormous gamble for Obama to count on more support from blue-collar whites, who have steadfastly resisted backing him since 2008. Not only Obama, but each Democratic presidential nominee since 2000 has run better among whites with college degrees than those without. A class-warrior message against Romney would further unnerve Democratic centrists who already worry that Obama's amped-up populism won't attract more blue-collar whites but will estrange the white-collar whites otherwise open to him. By making higher taxes on the wealthy "such a big part of his solution, he is in fact just splitting his coalition," says Mark Penn, Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief 2008 strategist.

So far, the president's team says that his call for the wealthy to pay more isn't antagonizing the upper-middle class. Penn, though, worries that ultimately "the people who vote on taxes are the people who pay them." Obama's sharpening populism reaches back to his party's traditions. Whether it can galvanize his party's modern electoral coalition remains to be proven.