Saturday, February 25, 2012

President Obama's Reelection Strategy

For several months the focus has been on the tumultuous primary process. It is time to take a look at President Obama's strategy and where he stands for reelection at this stage of the game. I would characterize Obama's path to reelection as a three-pronged strategy:

Capitalize on the improving economy: Historically presidents take the credit - or blame when economic conditions change. As the economy appears to be in recovery albeit a tenuous one, expect the President to take credit for rescuing the US from the economic disaster that he inherited from the previous administration. He will argue that his policies must continue and that another Republican administration will turn us back to economic malaise

This can be a powerful argument as long as the public's perception is that things are indeed on the upswing. If the economic numbers look better as the year goes on this will undermine the Republican's main argument to keep him a one-term president. However the perception of the public cannot be understated. For example an unemployment rate of 7.8% is an improvement over the current 8.3%, but if the perception is that the nation continues to be in economic distress that improving figure alone won't change the national mood. Obama also needs to be concerned about higher energy prices stalling the recovery. He is not to blame for the increase in energy costs, but will have a hard time arguing that it isn't his fault. Packaging a 30 second TV ad labeling him responsible for the price of gasoline may be a very effective Republican tactic come this fall.

It seems that the public (so far) does perceive the economy as improving. President Obama will take full credit for this and his point that we cannot turn back to "failed policies" will be a centerpoint of the fall campaign.

Mobilize the Democratic Base: Obama enjoys broad support from minority groups and traditional liberal constituencies and this will help him in swing states with changing demographics. He is conducting a major outreach effort to Hispanics playing off perceptions that the Republicans are anti-immigrant. He is focusing on suburban women especially on women's issues (e.g. the battle with the Catholic Church over contracetive coverage). Expect a renewed push for younger voters who are socially libertarian and and favorable to a more regulated economy. He is likely to work to pull together a similar coalition that elected him in 2008 using the a mix of touting his achievements and warning these groups of the consequence of a Republican victory.

Populism will be another tool in crafting a winning coalition. Last year's Occupy Movement although not specifically endorsed by the White House refocused public perceptions on the excesses of the capitalist system and corporate greed. This plays well for Obama to mount a populist campaign that will make a stark contrast with a candidate like Mitt Romney.

Obama’s campaign is raising a lot of money and is well organized to repeat the turnout machine that got many new voters to the polls. Expect the President to be aggressive and even move to the political left in the coming months to excite his base before swing back to the middle for the fall campaign.

One advantage of being an incumbent president is that Obama can command and manage the news cycle. Note that he struck preemptively and aggressively at Republicans this week on energy prices. Unlike other candidates (John Kerry for example) the President and his surrogates will engage in a very energetic attack and spin machine.

Exploit a divided Republican Party: Napoleon was quoted as saying "Never interfere with the enemy when he's in the process of destroying himself." The longer this contentious primary process continues the better for the President. The eventual nominee will have spent campaign resources and will need to replenish them. The Republican Party may be divided and unenthusiastic. The primary process has driven the party so far right (especially on social issues) that large swaths of moderates may be alienated and turned off. Although many independent voters are more conservative on economic issues, extreme social conservatism (or the perception of it) will be a potential death knell to the GOP in states like VA, FL, and WI.

A contested or brokered convention would be a Democrat's dream scenario. The Democrats will be unified regardless. A weak and divided GOP may also pay dividends with the Republicans suffering losses at the Congressional level as well.

As of now, eight months before the election President Obama's poll numbers are rebounding and state by state polling shows him winning a majority of swing states and to be close in traditional Republican states such as AZ and MT. His team should be cautiously optimistic, but it is far too early to be truly confident as much can happen in eight months and we have yet to even know who the Republican nominee will be. Economic conditions can change and at any time a crisis can erupt that changes the direction of this election. However, if I had to bet, it would be that President Obama may pull off what incumbent presidents often do - four more years.


The Prof


Paul Lambert said...

Your closing comment reminds me of something I heard on the Charlie Rose Show right after the President's State of the Union speech. Mark Halperin of Time said he has been talking to people at various levels of the Democratic party -- the President himself, his staff, comgressional leaders, and DNC leaders -- and they are all working under the assumption Obama will defeat whoever runs against him. His leftward, populist move is certainly a way to rally the troops; it may also reflect a confidence that he can say what he really feels and not have to worry about any serious consequences. Assuming too much too soon, however, has hurt more than one candidate. Until the Republican squabbling ends, though, the President won't be under much pressure to reconsider.

Brad said...

Paul, astute as always. Maybe Obama's "inner liberal" is getting a chance to come out!