Obama’s strategy and prospects for re-election

Before continuing with “diversity week” on this blog, I’d like to do something I haven’t done yet and talk directly about President Obama’s prospects for re-election. Currently, his poll numbers are lower than ever, and the Democrats just lost two special elections that may portend bad news for their chances in 2012. The economy is looking like it will grow only slowly for the next year, so unemployment will remain about where it is now.

Since Republicans won the House of Representatives last year, Obama has tried to portray himself as the “responsible adult in the room,” who can mediate Congress’s damaging and unproductive conflicts. The results have been underwhelming. Instead of separating himself from Congress, Obama’s poll numbers have been pulled down along with Congress’s since Republicans almost forced the country to default.

Talking about the deficit, as Republicans wanted to do, meant that talk about jobs and economic revival had to be put on the back-burner. In order to seem reasonable (and because he truly did want a deal to solve the nation’s debt problem), Obama agreed to put Social Security and Medicare on the table for cuts. When Speaker of the House John Boehner refused Obama’s deal on the debt, Obama was just left with egg on his face. He had given miles in the negotiations while Republicans refused to give an inch, making him look like a weak leader and like he was ready to sacrifice Medicare to the GOP. This angered the Democratic base and confused independents, who had previously turned against Republicans in another special election because of their plans to end Medicare as we know it.

Obama’s response has been to sharpen the contrasts between himself and the Republicans. He is going to portray himself as the champion of the middle class and a fighter for jobs. The centerpiece of this effort is the American Jobs Act that he announced last week. The Act is full of traditionally bipartisan policies that independent economists say will create millions of jobs in the next year. These include tax cuts for all working Americans, tax credits for small businesses who hire, and spending on roads, bridges and schools.

According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, it seems that Obama is on very strong ground here. Moving the conversation to the economy is good because people trust him over Republicans to handle the economy 46-37%. They narrowly favor Obama’s entire jobs package 43-35%, but the individual portions of the package have very wide support. For example, his tax cuts, increased funding for roads, schools and bridges, and increased money for states to hire teachers and first responders all receive about two-thirds of Americans’ support.

These proposals are popular and Republicans have supported them in the past, but of course they are not going to support them now  because that would be good for Obama (and incidentally, America). So Obama can paint Republican opposition as hypocritical and as standing in the way of creating jobs.

But wait, Republicans say, Obama wants to pay for this package by “raising taxes”! Ah, yes. Obama wants to lower taxes for all working Americans and pay for it by limiting the tax breaks very rich people can take advantage of. This is also an argument Obama can win. In order to oppose his jobs plan Republicans will argue that the rich deserve tax loopholes more than everyone else deserves a tax break. Obama’s position, that the rich should pay more in tax, is very popular. If this argument comes down to: “do the top 2% deserve a tax break or does everyone deserve a tax break?” then Obama surely wins.

Obama’s strategy is shifting. He has seen his “responsible adult” strategy fail and has also witnessed the power of attacking Republicans on Medicare. It appears he will stop his tendency to make preemptive concessions to Republicans and will propose shrinking the deficit without touching Social Security and Medicare. Republicans’ support for tax cuts for the rich (above all else) can also be used against them.

Imagine Rick “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” Perry versus Barack “protector of the social safety net” Obama in the next election. Obama certainly is, and he likes what he sees.

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