While the media cluck their tongues at social conservatives and obsess over the rather boring and predictable Republican primary, can we pause for a moment to observe just how panicked President Obama seems to be about his reelection?
Obama may be leading his Republican contenders in head-to-head matchups. But the campaign will not truly begin until after the party conventions in September, which gives the GOP nominee time to recover. Obama’s approval rating is stuck below 50 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. His approval rating has been underwater in Gallup tracking since May of 2011. This is dangerous for an incumbent during the spring of a reelection year. And Obama’s approval rating in swing states is even worse. Last week’s USA Today / Gallup poll had him losing to both Romney and Santorum in the most competitive states.
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Nor are the headlines likely to improve. Gas prices keep ticking up. The Iranian nuclear program continues to go forward. The Greek economy continues to go backward.
Since he lacks a significant and popular domestic achievement, the president seems to have concluded that the way to a second term is through the mobilization of key constituencies rather than a broad-based appeal to middle America. He combines these appeals with cheap gimmicks to generate publicity and deflect attention from the Republican primary. Now that his job is in trouble, the man who enthralled millions during the campaign of 2008 has been reduced to just another transactional political panderer. The gloss is off. Even the liberal Washington Post writer Dana Milbank says White House hiring practices make "a joke of the spirit of reform he promised."
The new Obama strategy was baldly transparent during the president’s recent address to the United Auto Workers conference in Washington. The inspirational rhetoric and pleas for American unity were replaced with fiery and combative words directed at opponents of the auto bailout. A majority of voters may continue to oppose the government intervention in GM and Chrysler, but you would not know that from listening to the president. GM and Chrysler’s recent good fortune has led the Democrats to pronounce the bailout a stunning success. But, if the bailout worked so well, why does the federal government still own around 30 percent of GM? (Clearly Obama understands that the bailouts are a problem: On Thursday, the government began to reduce its stake in AIG—to the ludicrously high share of 70 percent.)
The timing of Obama’s speech to the UAW could not have been accidental. As the president was delivering his broadside against his political adversaries and rallying labor’s shock troops, Republicans held primaries in Michigan and Arizona. Again and again, the president has demonstrated an eagerness to interfere with the GOP’s moments in the spotlight. Think of the time he hastily scheduled a rebuttal to Vice President Cheney’s 2009 speech on detention and interrogation policy. Or recall his Midwest bus tour, timed to coincide with the kickoff of the Republican campaign at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll. Or remember this past Tuesday, when Obama decided that the Republicans’ Super Tuesday elections would be a good time to hold his first press conference in months.
That press conference was also illustrative of the president’s ability to pander with impunity. It was there that Obama backed off from comments he had made to the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) only 48 hours before. In the run-up to his speech at AIPAC, the president and his allies had struck a harsher tone against the Iranian nuclear program. He told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, "I don’t bluff." He told the 13,000-strong AIPAC audience, "When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back." The message to the American Jewish community, and to all friends of Israel, was clear: I am on your side. Don’t go running to the other guys.
The message changed, however, as soon as the AIPAC attendees had returned home. In the press conference, Obama said that his words were "not a military doctrine that we were laying out for any particular military action." His remarks, he added, were more of a commentary on the history of U.S. cooperation with Israel on security, "Just like we do with Great Britain, just like we do with Japan." Here, too, the president was altering his words to please another crucial audience: in this case the media, who jotted down the president’s utterances without question, and were more interested in asking White House press secretary Jay Carney, "Is the president interested in this new iPad that’s coming out today?"
The cheapest shot of all has to be the president’s attempt to mobilize women voters by scaring them into thinking that the Republicans want to ban contraception. The media have been complacent—if not openly allied—with Democrats such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who repeatedly has accused the GOP of engaging in a Taliban-like "war against women." Intellectual giant Mika Brzezinski, for example, has described the Obama contraception play as "brilliant."
Forget, for a moment, that all the so-called Blunt Amendment proposed was to enshrine the conscience protections for health care coverage that already are in place. Forget also that no conservative has actually argued for the banning of contraception. What the president did in seizing upon the Rush Limbaugh controversy was cynically attempt to turn a fight over religious liberty and abortion into a fight over women’s equality. This was a naked grab to reclaim women, who he won 56 percent to 43 percent in 2008 but who then broke for the Republicans, 49 percent to 48 percent, in 2010. Moreover, it is an attempt to drive single women to the polls in the numbers they approached in 2008. And it may turn out to be effective.
There is no Democratic constituent group whom Obama hasn’t tried to buy off. The stimulus and auto policies were giveaways to labor. The alternative fuels loan program and his sacking of the Keystone XL pipeline were bait for the greens. Although deportations have risen steadily under this presidency and Latin American immigration to the United States has plunged, Obama promises Hispanic voters he will fight for the DREAM Act and eventual amnesty. Millennial voters get pledges of student debt relief. In fact, the only key Democratic voting bloc Obama hasn’t singled out for giveaways and special treatment seem to be African Americans, who continue to shower Obama with more than 90 percent approval even as their economic fortunes suffer and black teenage unemployment is at 47 percent.
The irony is that Obama’s overall job approval has fared best when he reverts to the message of his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: America is one country, united, and public policy should promote national cohesion, prosperity, and progress. When he has hit on these themes—during his Grant Park speech on Election Night 2008, during his inaugural, during his speech at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson rampage killer, during his announcement that Navy SEALs had destroyed Osama bin Laden—Americans have been reminded of what they like about him and have voiced their assent.
A sickly economy and unpopular policies, however, seem to have nudged the president into embracing a new strategy of slicing up the electorate, lavishing spoils on favored groups, and hoping to squeak by in November. This is the politics of division, not unity. His new attitude is revealing. It’s desperate. And it’s shameless.