Friendly Fire — 29 May 2012

David Axelrod and David Plouffe, President Obama’s political guys, are very smart.  I’ll stipulate that.  But I’ll have to say, I don’t get their campaign strategy.

I realize Obama can’t run a Hope and Change 2.0 campaign.  There have been too many actual decisions – and disappointments – for that airy, kumbaya-style idealism.   It does not necessarily follow, though, that the campaign must be one of division, name-calling and fear – although I do understand that he doesn’t want to spend too much time talking about anything beyond Osama bin Laden.

What I find puzzling, however, is how he seems almost intent on ticking off large portions of the Democrats’ traditional constituency.

This week, for instance, no fewer than 43 Catholic churches and agencies (including Notre Dame University, which only recently awarded Obama an honorary degree) filed suit against the federal government over the Obamacare contraception mandate.  At issue was not the mandate itself so much as the fact that the government took it upon itself to define which entities qualify as religious and therefore exempt.  If you hire only Catholics and minister only to Catholics, then you get full exemption; otherwise, you’re subject to the rule just like everybody else.

This strikes me as an eminently avoidable conflict – surely some amicable compromise was possible.  Instead, this doctrinaire ruling promises to turn off a rather wide swath of the voting public that has long been a core component of the Democrats’ coalition.  The descendants of European immigrants – from Ireland, Poland, Italy and the like – formed a big part of the urban Democratic machines.  They will be hearing from their pulpits for weeks about how this administration broke faith with them.

That’s only the start.  President Obama’s recent “evolution” on gay marriage may have raised his standing in the gay community, but at the cost of great consternation in black churches across the country.  Recall that 70% of California’s black voters voted in favor of Proposition 8, against gay marriage.  Now, it’s unlikely that they will abandon the nation’s first black president and vote for Romney over gay marriage, but one can easily see people staying home.  If as few as 5% refrain from voting, that can make a difference in some places.

Another typically reliable constituency is the Jewish community.  This year, however, Jews are having second thoughts over a fundamental issue: Israel.  More so than any previous president, Obama has been squishy about Israel’s security concerns.  He elevated the issue of settlements to an unnecessary and unhelpful level, making negotiations with the Palestinians more, not less, difficult.  He snubbed Prime Minister Netanyahu on his first visit, denying him even a joint press conference, let alone a formal dinner.  Finally, the administration has been at odds with Jerusalem over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, insisting on pursuing endless negotiation while Israel’s window of military opportunity slowly closes.   Those Jews for whom Israel is a beacon for their sense of self may find it hard to pull the lever for Obama.

It’s no secret, of course, that Obama has little use for “millionaires and billionaires” and other fat cats.  This comes at a price, however.  Obama raised far more money in 2008 from Wall Street than John McCain did, and that spigot has been pretty well shut.  I can’t imagine, for instance, Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan writing any big checks for the Democrats like he used to.  Indeed, by some reports, Mitt Romney – a money man himself – has out-raised Obama among Wall Streeters by 5-to-1 or more.

But money isn’t the only problem.  Obama’s relentless bashing of the prosperous among us has led to sharp reversals in support among the merely affluent.  Many of those who live in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit, and the like have turned against the president.  Districts that went for Obama by 8-12% in 2008 voted Republican by similar margins in 2010, and it is in these districts that Romney did particularly well during his primary run.

The youth vote was an enormously important part of the Obama wave in 2008.  This year, the signs are that young voters are just not motivated – probably in part due to the dismal job market into which they are graduating.  At Obama’s first official campaign event, he spoke at a huge auditorium at Ohio State that was only two-thirds full, leading the New York Times to suggest it had the feeling of a concert by an “aging rock star.”  Uh-oh.  Hardly the stuff of mass enthusiasm.

Young voters tend to be idealistic, and the 2008 version of Obama was perfectly attuned to their aspirations – a gallant, intelligent, hopeful candidate who promised to remake politics in Washington.  “Yes we can!”  Having now seen the tatters that has become of that promise, it is no surprise that young voters will opt to stay home.

Probably the biggest risk to Obama is the defection of the American worker.  While it is true that the White House trampled on the legal rights of bondholders to favor the UAW in the GM and Chrysler bailouts, it is also true that coal workers in Appalachia, oil rig workers in the Gulf region, and pipe-fitters along the Keystone Pipeline route have seen their president deliberately opt for job–killing policies.  The President styles himself as a defender of the middle class, but when it comes to jobs his policies have been a failure.

Indeed, in four separate primaries this spring, President Obama, running unopposed, still got less than 60% of Democratic votes.  In one case, voters gave over 40% to a felon in a Texas jail cell. These contests were largely in the upper south – West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma – the regions where miners and other laborers are struggling in Obama’s job market.   Now, the president’s defenders maintain that these states would not go for Obama in the general election, so these votes, while eyebrow-raising, are not indicative of anything.

Still, as Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics points out, only seven sitting presidents have received less than 60% in any primary, and of those seven (Taft ’12, Coolidge ’24, Hoover ’32, LBJ ’68, Ford ’76, Carter ’80, and Bush ’92), all but one went on to defeat.  And these were contests with a genuine opponent for the nomination.  Obama has fallen short four times against nobody.

Moreover, these regions spill over into states that Obama must win: southwestern Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, western Virginia, and the like.  If the disgruntled union man in these areas turns away from the President, he’s in trouble.

I don’t think Messrs. Axelrod and Plouffe have counseled the President deliberately to stick a thumb in these groups’ collective eyes, but the policies Obama has chosen favor his liberal base at the expense of many of these potential voters.  You have to be careful when you practice the politics of division – you want to make sure you don’t divide your own side.

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