Obama dribbles past job approval, shoots for personal appeal

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama’s campaign website is offering to showcase anyone who submits a more accurate prediction of the March Madness basketball results than Obama’s personal prediction.

“Think You Got Game?” asks a recent headline on his official campaign website. “Fill out your bracket below and see if you can beat President Obama’s bracket predictions…. And how’s this for bragging rights: we’ll publish a list of everyone who does better than the President here on BarackObama.com after the tournament is over.”

The new “Obama Bracket Challenge” is designed to help him spur base voters, build his mailing list and boost low-dollar donations, while also fronting his personal charm, which gets higher polls from voters than does his record on the economy.

Obama’s job-approval rating was only 45 percent in February, but his personal ratings have usually been a few points higher. Last December, for example, Gallup reported only 42 percent of the public approved of his performance, while an ABC/Washington Post poll pegged his personal rating at 48 percent.

That rating is relatively high given the state of the economy, although far below his high point of 79 percent in Jan. 2009.

The bracket competition may also tug the public conversation away from the dour economy.

Gallup says the combined unemployment and underemployment rate is 19 percent, despite Obama’s spending $5 trillion more than tax receipts since 2009. Even the official unemployment rate of 8.3 percent is far higher than the historical average, and is well above the 6.1 percent Obama’s team promised it would be by early 2012 when Congress passed the controversial $787 billion stimulus bill in 2009.

In fact, Obama’s personal popularity can shield him from GOP criticisms, and bring over a percentage of swing-voters who would otherwise vote for his eventual Republican opponent. And his campaign periodically tries to pump up those personal ratings by displaying Obama’s personal charm on the website.

In a recent video, for example, Obama is shown talking about the Chicago Bulls basketball team with several supporters who won tickets for a meal with him.

Asked by one man where he’d like to work other than the White House, Obama responded genially that, “I’d be starting point guard for the Chicago Bulls.”

However, he readily admitted, “I think that ship has sailed, so that’s probably not going to happen,” before adding, “I wouldn’t mind being on [ESPN’s] Sports Center. You know, do the top 10 plays?”

Obama’s relatively high personal ratings also deter GOP candidates from launching hard-hitting attack-ads.

Republican strategists are concerned that personal attacks will immediately backfire with viewers, or give Obama’s well-oiled public relations machine the opportunity to portray the critics as concerned about trivial matters. Any GOP criticism that Obama is obsessed about basketball, for example, will promptly produce a media-magnified response that Obama’s critics are obsessed about his interest in sports.

That’s the tactic that Obama’s communications team has used in the controversy over his effort to regulate religious groups’ activities via his Feb. 10 contraception-related mandate from the Department of health and Human Services.

Instead of addressing his critics’ claims that the mandate is provocative, illegal and unconstitutional, the White House and its allies in the media argue that GOP leaders have launched a “war on women” that seeks to deny them contraceptives.

That in-your-face tactic has boosted his numbers among Democratic-leaning women, a critical voting bloc. He needs their enthusiasm and their votes in November, and he’s using his PR machine to portray the GOP’s small government religious-rights argument as an anti-woman pitch.

Obama is fond of NCAA basketball, and has made his bracket predictions public throughout his presidency.

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