Obama does a half-Clinton on reelection bid

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Obama is trying to use President Bill Clinton’s reelection blueprint, but he’s missing two key elements of the 1996 victory; a rip-roaring economy and an emotional bond with swing-voters.

Instead, economic forecasts are being revised downwards, inflation and gas prices are moving the wrong direction, unemployment is above 10 percent. Public polls show a spike in voter pessimism, the public’s recession-year priorities are overpowering its modestly favorable judgement of Obama’s character, and even his base of progressives are increasingly critical.

“A rising economy helps all incumbents,” but a poor economy makes everything more contentious and difficult, said Scott Rasmussen, president of the polling firm, Rasmussen Reports. “If the economy was going strong, the left would defend him,” even for his decision to enter the Libyan war and to approve GOP tax cuts, said Rasmussen.

The economy is also muffling the political clout of his relatively high personal ratings, said Rasmussen. “It’s a challenge to separate” the impact of a President’s personal ratings from his over job performance, he said, but the polls clearly show that swing-voters are judging him by his performance, not by whether they like him personally.

Voters separate their views of Obama as a person from his performance ratings, said Luke Frans, press secretary for Resurgent Republic, a GOP-polling firm in Alexandria, Va. The firm’s March polls show the President being rated unfavorably by 64 percent of independents on budget and fiscal issues. The President’s personal ratings likely are being held up by a factor that Clinton did not have, namely the public’s satisfaction with the country having overcome a racial barrier via his election, he said.

Conservatives and libertarians highlight Obama’s videotaped gaffes. But there’ s little evidence that swing-voters’ attitudes have been moved significantly by Obama’s apparently-elitist comments about the price of arugula, whether cops acted stupidly in arresting a friend of his, and whether men should sell their “big-ass SUVs” to buy small hybrid cars.

In 2008, Obama ran as the novel candidate of hope and change, against a poor campaigner who was tied to an unpopular incumbent, and disliked by many in his own party and the media, during an economic meltdown. These days, Obama “hope and change” slogan has been retired while he runs as the not-quite-popular incumbent running during an unprecedented economic slump

In recent weeks, the President has mimicked several features of Clinton’s reelection run.

Like Clinton, Obama is trying to bolster his ratings among swing-voters by presenting himself as an honest broker between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Clinton rhetorically supported the Republican reform of welfare programs in 1996, but vetoed two bills before popular opinion forced him to signed the 1996 welfare-reform act. Similarly, Obama has embraced the Republican calls for spending cuts, while showing no eagerness to sign a bill, despite the call’s popularity among wealthier swing-voters.

To build support in vital voting blocs, Clinton and his aides repeatedly emphasize they will defend Medicare, Medicare, education and environmental programs from Republican budget cutters. In 2011, Obama’s team is standing as the defenders of Medicare, Medicaid, the environment and scientific research. His and his staff are even reviving a Clinton-era cliche as they repeatedly declare that Republicans will “end Medicare as we know it.”

Clinton, too started his reelection campaign early. He used his early funding to hit swing-districts with TV ads in 1995, long before the GOP had even picked their candidate. Obama’s formally opened his reelection campaign this month, and his Monday speech marked the kick-off of his election campaign,

There are major difference, of course. Obama’s team has a larger population of supporters in the much larger population of immigrants, and it has much better technology – iPads, databases, cellphones – and perhaps a billion dollars to identify and turn-out niche-groups of voters.

But he doesn’t have a good economy or an emotional bond with swing-voters.

In October 1996, Clinton was leading Republican Sen. Bob Dole by several points, even though Dole was deemed more “honest and trustworthy,” 66 percent to 45 percent, according to a October 1996 Gallup poll of 770 likely voters and 459 adults. Credit the Internet-boosted economy for Clinton’s lead. The poll showed 49 percent of the population though the economy was “excellent or good,” and that 49 percent thought he had a clear plan for the economy. When asked about Dole, only 31 of Gallup’s respondent said he had a clear plan, and 62 percent said he did not have a clear plan.

But Obama is running for reelection in a lousy economy., and is facing a electorate that has seen him push for bigger government budgets, cheer for a federal takeover of the health-care sector and fumble the MIddle East crises.

A Rasmussen poll of 1,000 likely voters in March showed that 57 percent of respondents said Obama understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives, down only 7 points from a 63 percent showing in April 2008. But only 36 percent of adults in a March Gallup poll said Obama has a clear plan for solving the country’s problems. That poll showed him doing poorly among swing-voters, with an approval rating of 43 percent from independents, 39 percent from whites and 42 percent from people older than 65.

Opinion is set to dip lower. Inflation is boosting the price of food and fuel, which will further pinch millions of low-wage workers, as well as the 20 percent of the workforce that are unemployed or underemployed. Optimistic estimates of economic growth are being scaled back from 2 or 3 percent to 1 percent. That slow growth won’t produce enough jobs to cope with the arrival of young people and legal immigrants into the workforce. Rasmussen’s consumer-confidence polls have dipped again down to the high-70s. That is far below the highs of 150 seen during George W. Bush’s years, and not much higher than the low score of 57 seen in February 2009.

“For President Obama to get his mojo back, he has to get the economy better,” said Rasmussen. “Bill Clinton had a rising economy during four years of governing… [Obama] will be lucky to have two years of a growing economy, and it takes a long time for the public to feel confident again.”

Neil Munro