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Obama: back on the campaign trail | Alex Slater

Some in DC are panicking over a few bad polls, but the president’s left turn will rally his base and secure re-election

As a chilly English character in the film Devil Wears Prada remarks, “I don’t normally say this to people who aren’t me but you have got to calm down.” And that’s exactly my message to the Democratic establishment currently hurtling around Washington like headless chickens, kvetching about President Obama’s supposedly dwindling chances of fending off a Republican presidential opponent.

Let’s put this in context. Obama’s recent sagging poll numbers may reflect Americans’ immediate dissatisfaction with the economy, but next year’s election results will not depend on such a simple calculation. Let’s consider President Bill Clinton’s famous line that elections are “all about hope for the future”. If this is true – and every recent election indicate that it is – then the reality is that Obama and his economic team offer considerably more hope, and more concrete policy proposals, than all of the Republican presidential field put together.

This means that as voters take their concerns about the economy to the polling booth, they will likely set aside ill-will over current economic performance and choose the best candidate to fix the economy moving forward. And by this measure, Obama’s poll numbers do not spell disaster – not by a long shot and a large margin.

Despite the hand-wringing, Obama can count on the votes he needs from his base. This isn’t just conjecture; Obama’s poll numbers among liberal voters are relatively strong. As senior adviser David Axelrod put it in a Friday memo, “Despite what you hear in elite commentary, the president’s support among base voters and in key demographic groups has stayed strong.” Axelrod would say that, of course, but his reasoning is based on sound data: in the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey, 69% of liberals said they approved of the president.

Now, that’s not the 90% plus of liberals who approved of Obama on election day or immediately following. But tepid numbers are not unusual at this stage in the political cycle and give the president plenty of time for improvement. After all, in 1995, President Bill Clinton’s approval rating was a mere 43%. And as election day approaches, you can count on the stark contrast between Obama and his Republican challenger further energising that base.

Of course, there’s the conventional wisdom that no president has ever recovered from such challenging poll numbers to go on to win a second term. That’s nothing more than Washington myth. Reagan faced an unemployment rate of over 9% in 1983 – similar to the current jobless rate – and his approval rating was similar to that of President Obama now. And what about George HW Bush, who allegedly lost his re-election campaign because of the weak economy? I’d argue it wasn’t the economy that turned Bush into a one-term president. Rather it was his negligence on the economy and his inability to connect with the suffering of the American people that cost him the election. However professorial Obama may appear, he can’t be accused of neglecting the problem of the economy, especially over the past few weeks.

And what we’ve seen is an almost revolutionary transformation in tone. Since Labor Day, we’ve witnessed an Obama moving into aggressive campaign mode: a strategy that will pay dividends. As Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart points out, everything changed with the president’s speech to the joint session of Congress on 8 September. Ever since, in barnstorming events in swing states, and in the back yards of House speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor, the drumbeat of the president’s call to “pass this bill” (his American Jobs Act) has put Republicans on the defensive. Apart from grousing about potential tax cuts, they have little to say on the proposal, demonstrating a chasmic difference of political leadership.

Obama’s new-found feisty tone is finally giving liberal critics the red meat they’ve been hoping for. After two years of disappointing compromises on healthcare, Wall Street reform, climate change and the Bush-era tax cuts – and nearly a year after Obama’s centrist tack in reaction to the 2010 midterm elections – Obama is now singing from the left’s favourite songbook.

Is this a calculated move? Certainly. The president’s team is counting on being able to triangulate centrist policies with a clear appeal to the base.

A quick look at the Republican field casts serious doubt on the argument that the Democratic base won’t be motivated this time around. With their extremist agendas, it’s hard to see an apathetic base sitting on their hands while Obama battles a Perry or a Romney, let alone a Bachmann. The GOP campaign is a breeding ground for unpopular policies: abolishing the Fed; getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, the department of education and a panoply of other departments; ending popular programmes like Medicare and social security; dismantling national healthcare and rolling back consumer protections.

Finally, time is on Obama’s side. The debate over his jobs act is only just beginning, and is a lose-lose proposition for Republicans: they will either be seen as obstructionist or as caving to the president’s demands. And the election is still more than a year away: plenty of time to rally the base while the economy slowly comes around, and to get back to the message the president is most comfortable delivering: hope, change and progress. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds