President Obama claims outsider role for 2012

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama used his Friday town-hall meeting to repeat his call for tax increases, and to showcase his claimed role as the determined defender of middle-class America.

“Your number one concern is the economy [and] that’s my number one concern,” he told the screened audience of friendly students, teachers and academics.

His introduction and answers complemented his statement yesterday that he will win the 2012 election if Americans see him as their ally in Washington D.C. “If next November they feel like I’ve been on their side, and I’ve been working as hard as I can, and I’ve been getting some things done to move us in the right direction, I’ll win,” the president said.

This pitch is different from most presidential reelection campaigns, where the incumbent seeks to portray his accomplishments as superior to his rival’s record and promises.

But that’s not likely to be useful to Obama, because his record includes a high unemployment rate — now at least 9.2 percent — plus high gas prices, huge deficits, partisan rancor, overseas uncertainty and a revitalized GOP opposition bolstered by the ideological Tea Party and right-leaning swing-voters.

Obama’s effort to portray himself as the citizens’ friend in a gridlocked D.C. leverages the public friendly opinion of him, and may sidestep the public’s increasingly negative opinion of his economic policies. (White voters move to GOP)

His portrayal of himself as the people’s friend in Washington D.C., however, has required new rhetoric and some distancing from his own record.

He did not highlight his earlier enthusiastic support for the $800 billion stimulus nor for his hugely expensive Obamacare law.

Instead, he blamed the current $1 trillion-plus deficit, the $14 trillion debt and the immediate need to raise the debt ceiling on “the bills that previous Congress has racked up.”

When pressed by one questioner to prevent budget cuts to left-of-center programs, Obama tried to downgrade his own clout, reversing his 2009 claims that he set the Washington agenda. “Whether I like it or not, I’ve got to get the debt-ceiling raised … this would be easier if I could do it on my own … but that’s not how our democracy works.”

He didn’t use the town hall to champion his fellow Democrats in Congress, but instead, he lumped them in with Republicans. “Both parties have a responsibility … [for the debt-ceiling, because] if we don’t solve it, every American will suffer.”

He tried to put himself in the political center, saying “I want everyone to … have a chance to become a millionaire [and] I think the free-market system is the greatest wealth-creation system ever know.”

That is sharply different from his 2009 criticism of Wall Street, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and his 2008 promise to “spread the wealth around.” (Obama passes deep hat to Wall Street bigwigs, former lobbyists, LGBT activists)

He soft-pedaled his call for higher taxes by describing it as “asking people … to share in the sacrifice” and tried to dismiss critics saying, “This idea of balance, of shared sacrifice … isn’t just some wild-eyed socialist position.”

But his also used left-of-center, populist arguments to paint himself as a moderate. Higher taxes are justified, he said, because “the wealthiest corporations, the rich, should do their part as well.”

Obama did not discuss the sources of tax revenue. According to the right-of-center National taxpayers Union, 70 percent of income tax was paid by the wealthiest 10 percent of taxpayers in 2008.

Obama’s populist argument contrasted “green energy” programs against oil companies and the owners of corporate jets, and college students against the managers of hedge-funds.

The reaction was often muted but he got his best responses from the friendly Democratic audience when he urged cutting “hundreds of billions of dollars” from the Pentagon and for greater taxes on the “rich.”

This pitch new wasn’t a slam dunk, partly because the public is increasingly leery of Washington’s spending. For example, numerous polls show the president’s ratings stuck below 50 percent; some polls even have him losing the 2012 race to an unnamed Republican candidate.

More significantly, swing-voters want curbs on Washington spending. A CNN poll this week showed that even 63 percent of Democrats backed the GOP’s Cut, Cap and Balance bill that would cut spending and impose a balanced budget.