Is it the economy, then? Does that settle it? I don't really buy the view that the current state of the economy will be decisive in this election, one way or the other. This was a very unusual recession and the tepid recovery is correspondingly strange. This time, the mechanical connection between growth and votes needs to be questioned, at least. The country knows that Obama inherited the recession. It also knows that his efforts to arrest it--for which, to be sure, he gets less credit than he deserves--had to contend with fierce GOP resistance. The economy is a negative for the incumbent, but I suspect less so than the raw numbers would lead you to think. Equally, if the pace of recovery improves, that will help Obama but again, I'm guessing, less than the historical correlations would suggest.
So what's the answer? Obama's big problem, I think, is that he is no longer the president he said he would be. Above all, he's stopped trying to be that president.
The astonishing enthusiasm for Obama in 2008 rested heavily on his promise to change Washington and unify the country. You can argue about whose fault it is that Washington is even more paralyzed by tribal fighting than before--in my view, it's mostly (though not entirely) the GOP's fault. For whatever reason, Obama failed to bring the change he promised. That would be forgivable, so long as he was determined to keep trying. But he isn't determined to keep trying. His campaign message so far boils down to this: You just can't work with these people. I tried, they're not interested, so it's war. If they want bitter partisan politics, they can have it.
My instinct tells me this is a losing strategy.
To me it seems so obviously the wrong strategy, in fact, that I struggle to understand what Obama's people can be thinking. The fact that Republicans refuse to compromise is not, tactically speaking, a problem for the Democrats, but a wonderful opportunity. Offer centrist compromise proposals on the issues that confront the country--Bowles-Simpson on fiscal policy, to cite the most obvious instance--and let the Republicans reject them. Keep offering, keep being rejected. Don't stop coming back with appeals for moderation and common sense, and let the GOP respond with promises to eliminate the federal government. See where that gets them.
In the end, remember, Bill Clinton defeated Newt Gingrich. He had to stare down the base of his own party to do it--but he won.
What you recommend is exactly what we have been doing, say many Democrats. No. The administration has accepted compromise in some areas, but always reluctantly, never at its own initiative. The advice from the base, which the White House now appears to be heeding, is that compromise gets you nowhere. As a result, Obama's ownership of his own policies is cast into doubt. The outcomes in many cases may be Clintonian or "moderate conservative" (on health care, for example), but they weren't celebrated by the administration as examples of the virtues of compromise. They were accepted grudgingly. We made concessions: this far and no further. And now the tacit message of the campaign is veering towards saying that traditional Old Democratic policies are the way to go. UAW, I love you. Just give us the votes, and the era of big government is back.