Obama and the polls: Half full or half empty?

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Lanny Davis
Former Special Counsel to President Clinton
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      Lanny Davis

      Lanny J. Davis counsels individuals, corporations and government contractors, and those under congressional scrutiny, on crisis management and legal issues by developing legal, media and legislative strategies that are designed to best produce a successful result for the client. He has experience in securities fraud and SEC investigations as well, and has found that utilizing such an integrated legal/media/lobbying approach can lead to quicker and less expensive settlements or even successfully litigated outcomes. Senior officials of public companies have also hired Lanny and his crisis group to defend themselves successfully against "short and distort" attacks and other market manipulations. For 25 years prior to 1996, before his tenure as special counsel to President Clinton, Lanny was a commercial, antitrust, government contracts and False Claims Act litigator (both in defense as well as plaintiff). He has argued numerous appellate cases in the U.S. courts of appeals.

      In June 2005, President Bush appointed Lanny to serve on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the U.S. Congress as part of the 2005 Intelligence Reform Act. In that capacity, he received the highest level security clearances so that he could be fully briefed and "read in" to the various anti-terrorist surveillance and financial tracking programs at the highest classified level. From 1996 to 1998, Lanny served as special counsel to the president in the White House and was a spokesperson for the president and the White House on matters concerning campaign finance investigations and other legal issues. Lanny has participated in national, state and local politics for almost 30 years. He has served three terms (1980 to 1992) on the Democratic National Committee representing the state of Maryland, and during that period he served on the DNC Executive Committee and as chairman of the Eastern Region Caucus. In Montgomery County, Maryland, he served as chairman of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission.

      Lanny has authored several books and lectured throughout the United States and Europe on various political issues. Between 1990 and 1996, Lanny was a bimonthly commentator on Maryland politics for WAMU-88.5/FM, a Washington, D.C. local affiliate of National Public Radio. He has been a regular television commentator and has been a political and legal analyst for MSNBC, CNN, Fox Cable, CNBC and network TV news programs. He has published numerous op-ed/analysis pieces in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, he Washington Post and other national publications.

      Lanny graduated from Yale Law School, where he won the prestigious Thurman Arnold Moot Court prize and served on the Yale Law Journal. A graduate of Yale University, Lanny served as chairman of the Yale Daily News.

      Lanny is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and Connecticut and before the Supreme Court of the United States and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Virtually every poll in the last two weeks — Gallup, Democracy Corps, USA Today, Rasmussen, New York Times/CBS — shows that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are in a dead heat nationally as well as in the nine battleground states.

For Obama, is this glass half-full or half-empty?

Certainly the economic news and poll ratings of Obama’s handling of the economy suggest that his holding his own versus Romney right now is pretty good. After all, unemployment is still over 8 percent and voters rating the economy negatively exceed those who rate it positively by a whopping 35 percent margin, according to the recent Democracy Corps poll. The key wrong-track-right-track question is now 59 percent to 33 percent wrong track. You’d have to ask Romney the question: If you are not ahead of Obama given these numbers, how can you expect to defeat him in November?

But there is also a lot of bad news in these polls about Mitt Romney, which paradoxically could mean even worse news for Obama.

For example, on the key issue of likability — which I believe in most elections is more important than all — Tuesday’s Gallup poll reported that Obama is more likable than Romney by a 2-to-1 margin, 60 percent to 31. On a “feel warm”/“feel cold” scale in the American Corps poll, Obama was plus-18 percent on Romney.

Romney has shown the ability to fix his problems on issues — he simply changes his positions. But can he change his poor likability numbers?

We have seen months and months of politically tone-deaf gaffes (“I’ll bet you $10,000,” “I like firing people” or — sorry, can’t resist — “Seamus liked it up there on the car roof,” even though the dog’s bowels had turned to water, leading Romney to hose down the car and Seamus and put him back on top for the rest of the 12-hour trip).

His basic personality — he is perceived as being cold and lacking authenticity — might not be fixable.

Moreover, Romney also consistently shows significant deficits versus Obama among women (especially working women) and Hispanic voters (running behind Obama in most polls by 2-to-1).

But to state the paradox again: Bad news for Romney can be interpreted as worse news for Obama — if he is not running ahead of Romney, given all his personality and perception weaknesses as a presidential candidate, that shows a fundamental problem that seriously threatens Obama’s success in November.

And what is it? I think it comes down to the core message of his campaign thus far — the liberal populist message that appeals to the liberal base (including me) but doesn’t seem to please the crucial centrist independent bloc, the classic “swing” voters who will ultimately determine the outcome of the presidential election.

This week’s Politico/George Washington University poll shows Romney with a 10 percent lead among independents. According to the Democracy Corps, those voters who define themselves as independents — including independents who say they lean Democratic or lean Republican — comprise as much as 30 percent of the electorate.

And what will move these voters? According to the Democracy Corps poll, voters favor “a plan to dramatically reduce the deficit over the next five years” by a margin of more than 3 to 1 — 59 percent to 19. We know from past history that these are the Ross Perot/Bill Clinton swing voters who are fiscally conservative and socially moderate. They are up for grabs in 2012.