Two months ago, Washington was abuzz with speculation that Barack Obama was going to follow Bill Clinton’s re-election strategy and move to the center, forsaking his liberal agenda that cost him control of the House in 2010. Now, it is evident that he has decided to come down hard left and wage his re-election fight from his liberal bunker, firing shots at Republican cuts in Medicare, pushing tax increases on the rich and attributing the gas price increase to speculators.
Very possibly the decision to tack to the left was not entirely voluntary. With the Republicans constantly confronting him with budget cuts and spending reductions, Obama cannot portray himself as a centrist. Every day, he is on the defensive against proposals for Republican attempts to rein in federal outlays. Amid a background of repeated confrontations, he cannot move to the middle. Indeed, there is no middle. His budget compromises with House Speaker Boehner are not middle ground, they are partial surrenders, grudging acceptances of budget cuts he would never otherwise allow.
In the Clinton days, there were — and I suspect still are — two camps in the Democratic White House. There were those who advocated a fundamental repositioning in the center of our politics and those who wanted to battle along ideological lines, using economic populism and class antagonisms to bolster their chances of victory.
The problem with a leftist strategy is that the vote share a Democrat can attract with it has a very low ceiling — in the low 40s. Economic populism just doesn’t play that well outside of the Democratic left.
The key to this electoral model is, of course, turnout. Obama made it work and bring him a majority in 2008 by adding the votes of new, younger voters, increasing the African-American and Latino turnout, and playing on the unique economic panic of the times.
But, absent a big increase in liberal turnout, the appeal of class warfare and populist rhetoric is sharply limited.
Will Obama be able to replicate his turnout model of 2008 in 2012? With high unemployment, inflation and gas prices, its very unlikely. His problem, more probably, will be to animate his base and breathe it back to sufficient life to give him any chance at all. Most polls show growing liberal disaffection with Obama, as Libya, Afghanistan and his failure to close Guantanamo saps the enthusiasm he needs on the left.
But Obama has a larger problem in moving to the left. You can’t get re-elected president as an advocate. You need to be a leader. Only Harry Truman managed to get a second term by overtly partisan rhetoric, and he was coming off 20 years of the New Deal coalition. A president who attacks the rich and seeks to divide the country may be able to rely on the base to keep his approval ratings in the low 40s, but he has no way to get re-elected.
Indeed, Obama will lose in 2012 because, by the time the next election comes around, voters will see all around them evidence of his weakness and his incompetence. It is now evident in the escape of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan. It will increasingly be clear as inflation mounts and gas prices continue their upward progression. More and more it will be evident that this former community organizer is not up to the job and has no idea what he is doing.
A positioning on the left may suffice for winning the Democratic nomination or even election to an open seat. But it does not satisfy the national need for leadership, ability, skill and wisdom. Obama cannot be re-elected by running like the candidate of 2008.