Obama talks much, does little as he begins to focus on 2012 reelection

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House is still a busy place, but priorities and attention are increasingly being sucked away to Chicago, home of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Congressional negotiations on budget disagreements are adrift, Libya’s anti-American dictator is brutally retaking control of the country, organized Islamists are using the democratic openings in Arab countries to push their way towards power, gas-price increases are draining dollars from the stalled American economy, and nervous American employers are trying to avoid hiring expensive U.S. workers.

The administration’s public response to these downwards trends is to woo swing-voters with low-risk promises of negotiations with budget-cutting Republicans, showdowns with pollution-producing energy companies and the prospect of budget-crisis morality plays pitting Obama as the middle-class champion fighting the Republican dragon. Simultaneously, and largely off the established media’s radar screen, Obama’s campaign is using the federal agencies to deliver promised benefits to constituency groups.

Last Friday, the president summoned the White House press corps to announce his dispatch of missile-armed warships and other aid to high-tech, earthquake-shocked Japan, to announce further international negotiations about possible intervention in the Libyan civil-war, and to suggest that gas-prices are pushed up by the oil-companies’ reluctance to pump out more oil or price-gouging, but not by his economic or foreign policies. “If you are in a house that requires you to commute 50 miles everyday to your job, you’re not going to be able to sell your house immediately, particularly in this market…You may want to buy a fuel-efficient car, but you may not be able to afford it…[so if] we see any efforts to take advantage of these price spikes through price gouging, we’re going to go after that,” Obama said, in a clear message to the many, not-quite-poor, swing-voting whites in the mid-West that can deliver states’ electoral votes into his column in 2012.

Advocates for intervention in Libya responded by deriding the president’s policy as indecisive and a cause of rising oil-prices, and oil-industry experts said the president is deliberately slow-rolling oil-exploration, low-balling unexploited U.S. oil reserves, and generously subsidizing uneconomic or Chinese-made renewable energy technology. But their next-hour protests didn’t break though the media’s Japan earthquake coverage, and won’t get onto the front-pages once the news from Japan becomes less interesting.

Obama’s pitch to the Democrats’ shrinking base among older voters is also focused on elections, not policies. “There is no need to deal with Social Security, and dealing with it would have at best a negligible impact” on current budgets, Jacob Lew, Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget said Feb. 17. “We see it solidly funded until 2037.” That declaration of fiscal confidence sets up a collision with the GOP legislators who say the numbers show relatively painless near-term reforms can avert medium-term fiscal torture. With the stage set by these rival claims, and already lit by the media’s klieg-lights, Obama can soon enter from stage-left as the guardian of secure retirement.

These high-profile pitches are complemented by his lower-profile alliances with constituency groups. On Thursday, the president hosted an all-day White House conference for Democratic constituency groups who are rallying behind Education Department regulations that will pressure school principals and teachers to discipline kids deemed to have “harassed” teens who are Muslim or Latino, or kids who say they are gay or lesbian. This push was portrayed by the administration and the media as a kind-hearted campaign to constrain school-yard gangs and lunch-money bullies, but leaders in the constituency groups readily admit that they’re trying to change kids’ culture and conversation.

The next day, Friday, Mar. 11, Dayton’s police force announced it was lowering the testing standards for police recruits, following pressure from the Justice Department. D.C.-based advocates for the nation’s African-American community endorsed the decision, which matches similar decisions in other cities, such as Chicago. But critics — who get little play in established media outlets — say the policy hurts crime-fighting in poor neighborhoods, disadvantages white working-class candidates who pass the progressive-era tests at higher rates than African-American and Latino candidates, and creates patronage power for local African-American and Latino politicians who can deliver votes on Election Day.

The president and his media-shop continued the base-boosting strategy this week by renewing calls for Congress to tighten control of gun-sales, and by urging Congress to join with teachers’ unions to weaken the tests that measure the quality of kids’ educations. The quality-control tests required by the No Child Left Behind Act show that 80 percent of schools are failing, and so “most of us were either outraged that [the numbers] are so high or skeptical that they are even true,” the president declared Monday. In a clear tilt towards the unions that oppose the testing, Obama added, “that skepticism may be justified.”

It is too soon to tell if Obama’s reluctance to shift his domestic and foreign policies, and his focus on pleasing the base, will get his turnout and swing-vote numbers high enough to win in November 2012.

But this strategy is likely to cause some political fratricide. Republicans are hoping to pick up the seats of several Democratic senators, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose voters have been hit hard by new restrictions on oil-exploration. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is also threatened by the administration’s reluctance to cut government spending, and he made sure to announce via a tweet that the president’s 2012 budget-request doesn’t do enough to cut spending. Four Democratic senators have already announced they won’t be running in 2012, prompting several pollsters to cautiously predict a GOP-led Senate in 2013. But Landrieu and Manchin aren’t on the presidential ballot-line in 2012, and their transition to a new career in 2012 would be a price that President Obama’s campaign office will happily pay to get their man back into the Oval Office.