In recent appearances, US President Barack Obama has shown a new willingness to slam Republican opponents and bluntly contrast his ideas and values with theirs. This more aggressive approach will likely be a key part of his 2012 campaign strategy.
In 2008, Barack Obama soared to victory on a promise to bring people together and transcend the bitter partisan politics of Washington.
But his 2012 campaign message is likely to be more about contrasts than compromise.
After nearly three years of Republican resistance, mounting Democratic impatience, and a steady stream of discouraging poll numbers and economic forecasts, a freshly combative Obama has emerged this autumn. Zigzagging around the country for fundraisers, speeches, and interviews, the president has been touting his own accomplishments -- something Democratic strategists have long griped he has not done sufficiently – in speeches peppered with enumerations of goals reached and promises kept.
Above all, he has also shown a new willingness to slam his opponents and bluntly break down how he differs from them.
In lieu of results, an economic counter-narrative
Obama’s latest appearances have indeed suggested that his campaign will address its most daunting obstacle, the fact that the economy has not significantly rebounded on his watch, by arguing that Republicans would make things worse. At a fundraiser near Seattle, Obama asserted that a Republican president “would fundamentally cripple America in meeting the challenges of the 21st Century”. Around the same time, his campaign team released a memo to the press accusing Republicans of being out of touch with everyday Americans by opposing tax increases on the wealthy and Obama’s recently pitched jobs bill. And in a televised interview this week, Obama attacked Republicans for refusing to compromise. “I've tried every step of the way to get the Republican Party to work with me,” he said. “Each time, all we've gotten from them is ‘no’.”
Obama’s feisty populist tone reached a climactic pitch during a speech at a high school in Colorado last week. Taking issue with Republicans calling his proposal to increase taxes on the wealthy “class warfare”, Obama drew applause by declaring: “If asking a billionaire to pay the same tax rate as a teacher makes me a warrior for the middle class, I wear it as a badge of honour.”
If for now, at least where the economy is concerned, it looks like Obama is running more on efforts, intentions, and ideas than on results, he does not really have a choice. “The bottom line is that Obama’s campaign will have to be about his stewardship of the economy, and how he did the best with the tough hand he was dealt,” explained Ari Berman, an author and political correspondent at prominent left-wing magazine The Nation. “Basically, he’ll say: ‘I inherited a mess, it hasn’t improved as quickly as you wanted, but we’re making progress.’”
‘A contest of values’
Without an improving economy to boast about, the Obama camp is resorting to other arguments to sway hesitant voters. One is that Republicans are too far to the right on social and environmental issues. At the fundraiser in Seattle, the president said the election would be “a contest of values”. And in a speech last weekend at a gay rights event, Obama called for the support of “people who believe in a big and generous and tolerant and ambitious and fact-based America” – a dig at Republican positions on gay issues and climate change.
The Obama campaign is hoping that the emphasis on values and social and environmental issues will solidify support among his disillusioned base. They’re also betting that it will help win back independents and moderates in key states like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado, where many such voters are affluent and college-educated. According to Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist in Colorado, “extremism on social issues is a disqualifier for moderates and independent voters” – even for those receptive to the fiscal conservatism championed by Republican candidates.
The strategy is somewhat of a reversal for Democrats, who have often downplayed their differences with Republicans on controversial social matters in order to appeal to a broader electoral base. But evolving public opinion, as well as more extreme positions expressed by some Republican presidential contenders and even audience members at recent debates, have provided Obama with an opportunity to portray his rivals as too conservative for mainstream America.
Obama made pointed reference to the Republican debates at a fundraiser in California last week, painting a scathing portrait of right-wing candidates and supporters. “You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change,” he said, referring to Texas governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry, whose home state has been blighted by wildfires. “You’ve got audiences [at the Republican debates] cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don’t have healthcare and booing a service member in Iraq because they’re gay.” (The soldier had appeared via video to ask the candidates at the debates whether they would chose to re-implement the recently ended “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, which prevented gay service members from serving openly).
“That’s not reflective of who we are,” Obama concluded.
Immunity on foreign policy
Obama’s campaign strategists will also attempt to use the president’s strong counterterrorism record – notably the killing of both Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki – to fend off attacks about Obama’s lacklustre economic record.
Republicans in the past have effectively depicted Democrats as weak on national security; in 2004, George W. Bush was able to capitalise on post-9/11 anxiety and rival John Kerry’s image as not tough enough to handle terrorism threats. But Obama’s successes in fighting terrorism have earned praise from both sides of the political divide, and none of the Republican presidential frontrunners have comparable foreign policy experience. “Republicans should just cede that issue now,” Chapin noted.
But if Obama’s national security victories rob Republicans of one of their usual arguments against Democratic presidential candidates, analysts agree that the economy will be the focus of the 2012 election. As Ari Berman of The Nation assessed, “Social issues and national security are not at the forefront of Americans’ minds right now”.
That explains why Obama called himself "the underdog” during an interview on major TV network ABC this week, before adding: "But at the end of the day, people are going to ask: ‘Who's got a vision?’”
As Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, put it: “Obama's hope is that Americans will give him credit for trying.” But, Sabato warned, the chances of that are growing slimmer with each day of high unemployment. “Even though he's still doing OK in polling, the bottom-line economic numbers are very poor and do not bode well for him if they do not improve,” he said.
Surely aware of that vulnerability, Obama has been urging voters to be pragmatic. At the fundraiser in California, he fittingly summed up his re-election campaign strategy thus far: “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.”
Date created : 2011-10-06