President Barack Obama is far from winning re-election, but his “Truman strategy” — plus some mild improvement in economic conditions — seems to have improved his prospects. And Republicans are helping.
The strategy, of course, is to portray himself, much as President Harry Truman did in 1948, as the defender of the middle class and Republicans as obstructionists bent on defending the privileged rich.
Polls suggest he is hitting two political bull’s-eyes — disdain for Congressional Republicans and a belief that rich people ought to pay more taxes.
GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney’s estimate that he pays only a 15 percent rate on his millions of dollars in income — plus his rivals’ denunciations of him as a “vulture capitalist” — can only help Obama.
And so will replays of the GOP TV debate in which not one presidential candidate was willing to accept a deficit reduction formula of $10 in spending cuts for $1 in revenue increases.
Truman famously came from behind to win in 1948 running against a “do-nothing Republican Congress” and as the Washington Post poll showed Monday — tracking all others on the subject — Congress’ standing with the public is at an all-time low.
Obama does not always distinguish between the Democratic Senate and the Republican House in condemning Congressional inaction.
However, every poll, including the Post’s, shows that disapproval of Congressional Republicans is greater than of Democrats — 75 percent to 62 percent, according to the Post.
Similarly, a Pew poll last month showed that voters blamed Republicans more than Democrats for failures to achieve results by a 17-point margin.
By 53 percent to 33 percent, Pew found, voters think the GOP is “more extreme in its positions,” while by 51 percent to 25 percent, they believe Democrats are more willing to work with the other side.
Obama’s own polls began to show some upturn in mid-December, about two weeks after Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kan., to identify with President Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism and to assail Republicans for refusing “to ask the wealthiest Americans to pay the same tax rate as they did when Bill Clinton was president.”
The Washington Post/ABC poll showed that by 44 percent to 40 percent, voters believed he was better at handling the economy than Republicans in Congress; by 44 percent to 41 percent, at creating jobs; by 50 percent to 35 percent, at protecting the middle class; and even by 46 percent to 41 percent, in handling taxes. He’d been running behind in most of those categories until then.
Polls have pretty consistently shown that large majorities believe “the rich should pay more taxes” — by 68 percent to 28 percent in an October Time magazine survey.
Obama has experienced an upturn in his overall approval ratings since the lows of last fall. He was down to 38 percent in the Gallup daily tracking poll in October. He’s now up to 46 percent.
Generally speaking, presidents with approval ratings below 50 percent are in danger. President George H.W. Bush had 46 percent at this stage of his presidency and went down to defeat.
On the other hand, President Clinton also was at 46 percent in January 1996 and won re-election.
At the moment, Obama is running about even with Romney in national polls — but significantly behind his own 2008 performance among key demographic groups.
The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Obama with a statistically insignificant lead of 46.5 percent to 45.3 percent over Romney.
The latest Washington Post/ABC poll gives Romney a 2-point lead, reversing a 3-point Obama lead in December. CNN shows Obama with a 2-point lead.
A much-discussed paper by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the liberal Center for American Progress indicated that demographic changes in key battleground states — chiefly growth in young voters and Latinos — would tilt the 2012 playing field toward Obama.
There’s no question that Obama should profit among Latinos from Romney’s hard-line immigration views — topped by his close alignment with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who wrote model legislation that served as the basis for measures passed into law in Arizona and Alabama that cracked down on illegal immigrants.
Still, the latest Gallup poll shows Obama’s approval rating among Latinos is only 56 percent, down from 67 percent in 2008 exit polls.
Obama won 55 percent of support among women in 2008, but he’s currently at 48 percent. Among whites, he’s down from 43 percent to 36 percent. Among voters aged 18-29, he’s down from 66 percent to 53 percent.
Obama got just 45 percent support among seniors in 2008; he’s now down to 40 percent approval. And, crucially, among independent voters, he’s dropped from 52 percent to 42 percent.
Independent voters clearly are dismayed that Obama has failed to fulfill his major campaign promise: to unite “red” and “blue” America to get the country’s problems solved.
According to the Washington Post poll, 52 percent of voters say Obama has accomplished either “not much” (25 percent) or “little or nothing” (27 percent), while 47 percent say he’s accomplished “a great deal” (12 percent) or “a good amount” (35 percent).
Of those who think he’s accomplished little or nothing — presumably, mainly independents and Republicans — Obama gets the blame by a whopping 56 percent to 18 percent.
Obama is trying to convince the electorate that he saved America from plunging into a second Great Depression and is succeeding in triggering a recovery, albeit a slow one.
Improving unemployment numbers will help. Any renewed downturn — even if it’s the result of trouble in Europe — will hurt.
Obama will have the advantage of being able to husband his vast campaign resources if Romney’s opponents, especially former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), do not soon drop out of the race.
Romney seeks every opportunity to direct fire at Obama for trying to turn America into a “European welfare state,” but his opponents are equipping Obama with ammunition as they dwell on dealings by his former firm, Bain Capital.
The Democratic Party has also been assiduously adopting Romney’s GOP rivals’ argument that he’s a serial flip-flopper, and last week, former investment banker William D. Cohan unleashed a devastating critique that combined attack lines on Romney.
Cohan, author of two books on the misdeeds of Wall Street, charged that, under Romney, Bain made huge profits by offering high initial bids to buy firms at auction and eliminating competitors and then found ways to drastically reduce the offer during final negotiations.
“This win-at-any-cost approach makes me wonder how a President Romney would negotiate with Congress, or with China, or with anyone else — and what a promise, pledge or endorsement from him would actually mean,” Cohan wrote.
Even though Obama has run up the national debt and expanded government significantly, he is wrapping himself in distinctly American — not European — trappings, echoing Truman and Teddy Roosevelt.
And he’s got the money and the podium to paint Romney as a practitioner of the Wall Street practices that he says led to the Great Recession.
It’s going to be a brawl. I wouldn’t predict an outcome, but Obama has gotten off the mat.