If you’re wondering how President Obama plans to get reelected in 2012—and why he might succeed—look back not to 2008 but to his successful campaign to win congressional passage of Obamacare during 2009 and early 2010.
Obamacare generated popular doubts from the beginning, and fairly early in the congressional debate voters arrived at a net-negative view. This never changed to this day, more than two years after final approval of the legislation in March 2010. Yet Team Obama devised and executed a plan that resulted in a historic victory that had eluded earlier Democratic presidents.
It’s often assumed that this was achieved by simple fact of the overwhelmingly Democratic makeup of the 111th Congress elected with Barack Obama in 2008. While it is true this predominance turned out to be a precondition of victory, the politically explosive rise of the Tea Party beginning in early 2009 and skepticism even from some Democratic-leaning constituencies made passage of Obamacare far from inevitable.
Team Obama learned early on that the president’s many speeches on the subject would have zero impact on voters’ view of his plan. Instead the administration focused on mobilizing the left power base (labor, the social left, AARP, and Hollywood) and moving through special interests (hospitals, insurance companies, Fortune 500) to assemble, piece by piece, an economic and lobbying juggernaut.
Conservative and Republican elites responded, for the most part, with a defense of free markets and a knowledgeable critique of top-down, government-imposed medicine. This was a strategy that had been successful in the resistance to Hillarycare in 1993-94, and on many levels it won the public debate of 2009-10. But in retrospect it proved one-dimensional in comparison with what the administration was bringing to bear.
The essence of the Obama strategy was an odd combination of moral lecturing and raw power—Harvard married to the Chicago Way. Social conservatives and grassroots Tea Party types attempted to attack Obamacare on the moral plane—warning about death panels, universal abortion coverage, violation of the Constitution, etc.—but the Washington-based conservative leadership that set the tone and controlled most of the opposition spending preferred to steer away from such arguments and toward explanations of why Obamacare would make health care worse in practice for most if not all Americans. In the end this wasn’t enough.
Now a souped-up Obamacare strategy has taken center stage in the president’s campaign for reelection. Fundraising problems? Move up the timetable for endorsement of same-sex marriage. Buyer’s remorse among pro-immigration Latino voters? Steal the bipartisan DREAM Act compromise being developed by Florida senator Marco Rubio and issue it as a temporary enforcement guideline from the Department of Homeland Security.
The other half of the parallel to Obamacare is a decision to stop arguing—or at least stop agonizing—about the big picture. In Obamacare, the big picture—the elephant in the room—was the overall unpopularity of Obama-care. At a certain point, Team Obama realized that by negotiating deals and understandings with powerful constituencies, they could overcome the unpopularity of the bill.
Today, of course, the elephant in the room is the mediocre economy. Obama’s allusion to the private sector doing “fine”—and his quick retraction of it—was the last time in the campaign we’re likely to hear any disagreement about the state of the national economy. From now until November 6, Democrats and Republicans will be in agreement about what the electorate already knows: The economy is badly underperforming.
What we haven’t heard the last of is the blame game. After three-and-a-half Obama years, blaming George W. Bush for the financial crisis, the 2007-09 recession, and the subsequent stagnation infuriates Republican elites (particularly Bush alumni). But as a line of attack, it is far more in accord with the views of American voters than the (now abandoned) contention that under Obama the national economy has made a decent comeback.
In Gallup’s most recent sounding on this issue, taken in early June, 68 percent of voters blame George W. Bush a “great deal” or a “moderate amount” for the nation’s economic problems, while 52 percent assign such blame to Obama. Perhaps counter-intuitively, voters’ blaming of Bush has not faded with time and distance from the Bush presidency. The percentage blaming Bush for economic conditions did drop from around 80 percent to 70 percent between the summer of 2009 and the summer of 2010, but it has remained stable in the nearly two years since then.
Even 49 percent of Republicans blame Bush, with 51 percent saying he isn’t to blame. Obama’s considerably lower “blame” numbers have also remained steady, ranging from 48 to 53 percent in Gallup polls taken since 2010.
Thematically, these numbers dictate for Team Obama repeated accusations that Mitt Romney yearns to return to the George W. Bush policies that got America in economic trouble in the first place. In particular, Obama strategists would treat Romney’s selection as a vice presidential running mate of anyone who could be portrayed as a Bush-era economic policymaker (such as Ohio senator Rob Portman) as a gift from the political gods. Even if Romney avoids this trap, it behooves him to emphasize elements of his economic plan that can be depicted as departures from the Bush era.
Now that both sides of the debate accept as fact the mediocre performance of the economy, it is no longer in Romney’s interest to focus so much of his campaigning on lamenting economic weakness in the present. For one thing, it limits his ability to exploit Obama’s vulnerabilities in noneconomic areas. Regarding (and at times labeling) all noneconomic issues as “distractions” leaves an open field for Team Obama’s slicing and dicing of the electorate into recipients of narrow but attractive noneconomic messages.
For another, it devalues a future-oriented economic debate that is more in Romney’s interest than Obama’s. Rather than falling into a backward-looking blame game that in major respects favors Obama rather than the GOP, Romney needs to contrast his plans for budget and tax reform to Obama’s desire for a stiff increase in tax rates to finance continued high levels of domestic spending. After all, Obama got into political trouble in 2009-10 not for having created the economic crisis, but for Obamacare, the stimulus, and other federal spending schemes that rang false to millions of Americans as a credible pathway out of the crisis. Obama’s addiction to this kind of solution has not changed, and will be back in play if he gets a second term.
Finally, within the overall bleakness of the national economy there are regional disparities that go against the grain of Romney’s message and Electoral College targeting. Most salient is the fact that the politically pivotal Midwest suffered less during the recession—it had far less of a housing bubble than any other region—and is currently doing considerably better than the national average thanks to such factors as the boom in agricultural commodities, a mild recovery in industrial production, and the revolution in domestic energy production that centers on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). First-term Republican governors in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio are taking bows for unemployment rates well below the national average. So is the governor of Pennsylvania, a fracking state that outside the Philadelphia region is much more like the Midwest than the Northeast. Even Michigan, an economic basket case before the 2007 recession, has seen its unemployment rate decline to just above the national average.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the one Southern state where polling still shows a consistent Obama edge is Virginia, which (with its proximity to Washington) dodged much of the residential housing holocaust and has by far the lowest unemployment rate (5.6 percent) of any state in the South. Among the 12 states listed as too close to call by RealClearPolitics, only 2—Nevada and North Carolina—today have unemployment rates significantly above the national average.
Heading into the summer, Obama’s reelection strategy has taken shape. It has proven itself capable of success and should not be underestimated. Mitt Romney’s job is to avoid falling into its traps and make the adjustments needed to counter it.
Frank Cannon and Jeffrey Bell are president and policy director of the American Principles Project, a Washington-based advocacy group.