The bruising Republican primary battle has allowed President Obama and his campaign to craft and refine their re-election message, tailoring it to win over a bloc with which the president faces his most glaring vulnerability: independents.
The national conversation in recent months has been directed more toward conservatives than independents, thanks to nationally televised debates and four bruising primary battles. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has suffered one piece of fallout as a result, seeing his negative rating with independents spike by an unusually large 20 points in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
“We’re just sitting back and watching the show,” an Obama campaign official said of the GOP race. “Audiences have gone up in the past month. We’ve seen our supporters get engaged. Attacks on the president have driven people into our camp … They’ve been busy courting their Tea Party base.”
The official added that Romney’s negatives among independents have shot up, because, “There has been a debate over his background as a corporate buyout specialist, the discussion of his tax returns, that he’s comfortable paying a lower rate than most Americans, that he made a decision to park his investments off shore. That combined raised them.”
As a result, Obama has begun to do five different things: 1. Go populist, stressing economic fairness; 2. Return to a Midwestern plain-spokenness and relatability; 3. Run against Congress while showing he is a fighter; 4. Subtly respond to the Republican presidential field without naming names; and 5. More frequently tout what he sees as his biggest accomplishments.
Economic fairness – and unity (to a point)
The president started tweaking his re-election message in Osawatomie, Kan., with a speech focused on economic fairness amid the waning strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“Their philosophy is simple,” the president said of Republicans, “we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. Well, I’m here to say they are wrong. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules.”
Obama sought to strike chords intended to remind voters of the rhetorical unity that launched him into the national spotlight during his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
“Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values, 1 percent values or 99 percent values,” he said. “They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.”
Those themes were echoed in last week’s State of the Union.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by," Obama said, "or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.”
Midwestern common sense: Simple, relatable
A hallmark of Obama’s since his emergence onto the national stage is his ability to reflect a certain common-sense sensibility.
The former Illinois senator focuses on the way voters feel Washington should work, where a president supports one thing, Congress supports another, and the two come together to reach an optimal point of compromise.
It’s the kind of almost Midwestern values and tone that many political observers cite as a reason why this child of Hawaii -- who grew up in Indonesia with a foreign middle name, “Hussein” -- was able to win so convincingly in 2008, with particular strength in the Midwest.
Obama reached for that again in his housing speech yesterday.
“This is the most important purchase a family makes,” the president said of homeownership. “But how many of you have had to deal with overly complicated mortgage forms and hidden clauses and complex terms? I remember when Michelle and I bought our first condo – and we're both lawyers.”
That got some laughs.
“And we’re looking through the forms and kind of holding it up--.”
“Reading it again -- ‘What does this phrase mean?’ And that’s for two trained lawyers,” he deadpanned again before getting serious.
“The forms, the confusion, the potential for abuse is too great just because the forms were too complicated. So this is what a mortgage form should look like,” Obama said, holding up a one-page mortgage application. “This is it.”
People understand the difference between a pile of paperwork with tough-to-read fine print and a single sheet of paper with clear rules. Accompanying story after story after story today about the speech was the picture of the president holding up that single page.
This kind of simple and relatable Midwestern sentiment embodies the art of political messaging, and it’s proven to be a lot easier for Obama to employ while campaigning than governing.
A line in the sand: Running against Congress
Almost everywhere the president travels, he decries congressional instransigence. That's good politics when Congress is at historic lows in approval.
“Thanks to some of the same folks who are now running Congress,” Obama said in Osawatomie, “we had weak regulation; we had little oversight, and what did it get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people's premiums with impunity and denied care to patients who were sick, mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn't afford, a financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy. We simply cannot return to this brand of ‘you're on your own’ economics if we're serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country.”
In the State of the Union, Obama went after Congress again, trying to show he’s open to compromise, while also showing he wouldn’t be bullied by the GOP leadership.
“As long as I’m president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum,” Obama said. “But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place. No, we will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits.”
And he did it again during the housing speech. "We're going to need Congress to act," Obama said, which was greeted by chuckles in the crowd.
"I hear some murmuring in the audience here,” he added with a smile. “We need them to act.”
Gone is the lofty hope for transcendence and compromise. Instead, Obama now reflects the realism of a president who has been burned.
For example, when he called in his State of the Union address for comprehensive immigration reform, he had this caveat: “But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let's at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country.”
Offering what seem like “common-sense” items for Congress to work on, Obama can have it both ways. If Congress doesn’t act on the poll-tested items he suggested, he can continue to run against Congress. If it does, he can claim a measure of credit.
Subtly respond to GOP, especially Romney
The president has also taken to subtly responding to the GOP primary battle without directly engaging any of his would-be challengers in November.
He seized, for instance, on the notion that it was unfair for a millionaire to pay lower taxes on earnings from their investments just as Romney was having to defend his wealth and low effective tax rate as part of the GOP nominating battle.
“[Y]ou can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense,” Obama said in his State of the Union address.
“We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford ... That’s not right. Americans know that’s not right,” the president added in a bit of messaging that could just as easily double as a campaign speech.
On the auto industry, Obama said: “Some even said we should let it die,” a clear allusion to Romney, who authored a 2009 op-ed advocating bankruptcy for General Motors and Chrysler. Obama made that reminder again during a visit this week to the Washington Auto Show. “[I]t's good to remember that the fact that there were some folks who were willing to let this industry die…,” he said.
He defended his record on Iran and Israel, even ad-libbing during the State of the Union when talking about Israel’s security, adding “and I mean iron clad,” referring to the U.S.’s commitment to its ally.
Even his nationalistic tone about America -- he said “America” or “American” 88 times in the address -- seemed to be a response to Republican candidates who have accused him of going on apology tours or not believing in “American exceptionalism.”
During his Osawatomie speech, Obama also employed the some-would-say tactic: “Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that's happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess.”
During his housing speech, Obama said this: "It is wrong for anybody to suggest that the only option for struggling, responsible homeowners is to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom.”
Anybody -- or, once again, his most likely opponent this fall?
Mitt Romney on Oct. 17 told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in Nevada, the state that leads the country in unemployment and rate of foreclosures: “As to what to do for the housing industry specifically, and there are things that you can do to encourage housing, one is, don’t try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom, allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up, and let it turn around and come back up."
The president added another vital wrinkle to running for reelection -- listing accomplishments. Presidents up for reelection have to be able to run on their record, at least how they spin their record.
But up until the State of the Union, the president hadn’t given a full listing in one place of what he saw as his best achievements. He ticked them off that night -- killing bin Laden, helping the auto industry become solvent again, private-sector job growth (especially in manufacturing), cutting the deficit by more than $2 trillion, and adding new rules for Wall Street.
Obama has his challenges. He is facing a difficult national environment. Unemployment is still high, and those who have stopped looking for work just about doubles that number. A huge number of people say the country is off on the wrong track. There’s a big budget deficit, gaping long-term debt (much of it owed to China) -- which many say is the top issue facing the country in the long run.
But the president’s team hopes to be able to talk about trajectory, that things are “getting better,” and, of course, to make the election a “choice” and not a referendum.
With the GOP field locked in a battle for the nomination, the messaging has not been geared to the middle.
Some Republicans argue that a long primary battle helped Obama and could help Romney as well. There was some evidence of that, as Romney sharpened his debate performance in the run up to the Florida primary -- something that likely wouldn’t have happened if he had won South Carolina and appeared on his way to the nomination.
The difference, the Obama campaign official said, “President Obama and Sen. Clinton did not spend 2007 and 2008 getting dragged out to ideological pasture. They had a debate about how to draw down troops in Iraq and health care. They [the GOP] have been courting the Tea Party base with a scorched-earth campaign.”
The president -- not facing a primary challenge -- is quietly trying to take advantage. That’s the power of the incumbency.