The usual strategy for presidential candidates is to appeal to the political center in hopes of broadening their support. President Obama isn’t doing that. He is tilting sharply to the left on issue after issue: immigration, religious liberty, welfare, gay marriage, the environment, race, the role of government. Why?
The simplest answer is that his bid for reelection is in trouble, and he’s going where he has the best chance of finding friendly faces. In fundraising, you rely on folks who’ve donated before. Obama is going after voters who’ve voted for him before.
But why focus his campaign on them? Didn’t Obama long ago lock up the various liberal elements and interest groups who make up the Democratic party’s base? Yes, but their mere support is not enough. He needs them to swarm to the polls and vote in the same massive numbers they did in 2008. At the moment, that seems unlikely.
A poll in mid-July by Resurgent Republic found that Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting in the presidential election than either Democrats or independents. Sixty-two percent said they’re “extremely enthusiastic,” compared with 49 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of independents.
In truth, Obama has few alternatives to trying to jack up the Election Day turnout of his base. Pollster Whit Ayres of Resurgent Republic believes Obama has given up on going after white working-class voters. His share of their vote has dipped below 30 percent in polls. And while he won independents handily in 2008, recent surveys show that crucial bloc favors Romney.
Obama’s emphasis on liberal issues won’t appease independents—and may alienate many of them. He has a separate plan for overcoming their disaffection: trashing Romney. His personal attacks and campaign ads characterize Romney as a capitalist buccaneer unfit to be president. If those work, independents—a few million, anyway—may reluctantly settle for Obama as the lesser evil.
But arousing the base is still key. “He has gone to the left on everything as aggressively as he can,” says Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who ran Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996. And on practically every issue he can.
The Obama administration’s imposition of a rule requiring health insurance policies to provide free birth control pills and free sterilization thrilled liberals, especially feminists. His blocking of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas made the environmental lobby happy.
By an executive order of dubious constitutionality, Obama changed immigration law to allow roughly one million illegal immigrants to remain in the country free from arrest and deportation—an unabashed effort to increase the Hispanic vote. His attorney general, Eric Holder, has noisily criticized voter ID laws as thinly veiled attempts to prevent African Americans from voting.
Two weeks ago, the administration announced another policy shift to please liberals. By bureaucratic directive, it decreed states could abandon the requirement that welfare recipients seek work. Intentionally or not, this gutted the welfare reform law of 1996, the most significant achievement of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Besides Hispanics and African Americans, Obama has wooed gays by announcing his support for same-sex marriage. This also had the intent of unleashing a flood of campaign contributions from wealthy gays, just as the Keystone decision was expected to spark donations from environmentalists.
In pulling off these unsubtle moves, Obama has had an ally. Republicans and conservatives complained about all of them, the Catholic bishops are furious over the unprecedented requirement that Catholic employers provide health insurance that violates their church’s teaching, and the about-face on enforcing immigration law drew strong attacks. But the mainstream media were sympathetic to the president’s actions, either downplaying them or openly siding with Obama, and the protests died down. The notion that Obama was purposely veering away from the center was rarely noted.
But the impact of Obama’s latest pitch to the left, delivered on July 13 at a firehouse in Roanoke, Virginia, is likely to linger. Except for the conservative press, the media largely ignored his speech. Yet it was memorable for his denigration of success in business and glorification of government.
Obama’s hostility to business, the profit motive, and wealth in general is no secret. During the 2008 campaign, he talked up income redistribution, telling Joe the Plumber that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
In 2009, he suggested that doctors often gouge their patients by insisting on more treatment than necessary. This reflects a “business mentality,” he said. In 2010, he said he didn’t “begrudge success that’s fairly earned.” Then he added: “I mean, I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.”
In his Roanoke riff, he outdid his previous hymns to government. The thrust of his argument was that government, even more than personal initiative and hard work, is responsible for the success of individuals. “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that,” he said. “Somebody else made that happen.” He cited projects like the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge as evidence “you’re not on your own.”
The Obama campaign quickly sensed a backlash. When Mitt Romney read the “you didn’t build that” quote at a rally, it responded with a TV ad declaring “that’s not what [Obama] said.” Not true. Romney, gazing down at a text, had read the comment accurately, word for word.
Perhaps it was better, at least for campaign purposes, to deny the quote rather than try to explain it. Who would believe Obama didn’t mean exactly what he said? His history, his earlier comments, his policies—all stand as evidence of his loathing of business, profits, and affluence.
Obama’s campaign advisers appear confident of winning. Their contempt for Romney is palpable. But their cockiness is unearned, particularly when appealing to liberals is the best strategy they’ve got.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.