Team Bill to Team Barack: Change your strategy

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Several political professionals from President Bill Clinton’s successful campaigns are slamming President Barack Obama’s high-stakes 2012 re-election effort.

Polls indicate that Obama is losing support from swing-voting independents and moderates, and Mark Penn, one of Clinton’s primary pollsters in the 1996 re-election campaign, told TheDC that the president’s 2008 alliance of low-income and upper-income voters has cracked. The swing-voters “should be his primary targets … [and] he needs to bring that coalition together, not divide it,” said Penn, now head of Burson Marsteller, a New York-based international public relations firm.

The Obama campaign has shifted to the left, ramped up criticism of GOP challengers, is talking-up “class-warfare” and seems to have abandoned most efforts to win over independents, said Dick Morris, Clinton’s 1996 campaign manager and political adviser. Obama’s base-pleasing strategy won’t bring the swing-voters over to his side, especially if the GOP nominates Mitt Romney, he said. (RELATED: GOP leadership faces possible tea party revolt in 2012)

James Carville, the Virginia-based consultant who managed Clinton’s 1992 campaign, urged a different tactic, telling Obama to adopt a policy of economic populism the day after Republican Bob Turner won the Sept. 14 election in New York’s 9th district.

Carville called on Obama to “panic,” fire some advisers, indict some bankers, denounce economic austerity and “stick to your rationale for what has happened and what is going to happen under your leadership.”

Stan Greenberg, Clinton’s 1992 pollster, has repeatedly offered similar warnings from his D.C.-based polling firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. Democratic-leaning blocs of unmarried women, Hispanics and younger voters are less likely to turn out on election day because they “are not hearing an economic narrative that speaks to their problems … [so]  a stronger economic rationale is needed to ensure they turn out and support traditional allies who support their public policy agenda,” he said in an Aug. 24 report titled “Creating a New Economic Narrative; Engaging the Rising American Electorate for 2012.”

After the president used his Tuesday Rose Garden speech to announce a new base-pleasing demand for more spending and increased taxes, Carville complimented Obama. “He fired his old negotiating philosophy … I think he is going to need some new people, and from everything I hear there is going to be some new people coming in,” he said in a CNN interview.

President Clinton has also commented on Obama’s campaign, offering a mix of vague advice and indirect criticism. In a CBS interview on Sept 18, he endorsed Obama’s Sept. 8 call for a new $447 billion one-year stimulus, but warned that Obama’s polls may not improve until voters’ can gauge his GOP rival: “It’s hard to see your numbers go up [until] … he’s got a real opponent and people get to evaluate real alternatives,” said Clinton, who is the only Democrat since FDR to be re-elected.

Clinton’s criticism of Obama came when he emphasized the current unemployment rate. “You’ve got not only 9 percent unemployment, you’ve got who knows how many millions of people aren’t in the figures because they aren’t out there looking … and a lot of others who have part time jobs that want full time jobs,” he said. Also, Clinton did not predict Obama would win, and declined to argue against a claim by former Vice-President Dick Cheney that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would be a stronger candidate than Obama.

“If you go back to 1996, President Clinton occupied the center, he defended Medicaid, Medicare, education and the environment,” Penn told TheDC. Clinton “had dust-ups with the Republicans, but he did so in ways in which he gained dramatically across the board,” he said.

Obama, Penn contrasted, has called for big tax increases and for some Medicare cuts. “He’s looking at two [policies], neither of which has support… [so] he’s got to find more creative solutions,” he said. The vital, swing-voting independents “are not looking for a return to class warfare — they’re looking for unity.”

Morris, who ran Clinton’s campaign until he left following a sex scandal that exploded near the election, said Obama won in 2008 by building a Clinton-like coalition of low-income and high-income people.

That 2008 coalition is fragmenting, according to Morris. Three recent Fox News surveys show that Obama’s job approval among under-30s has shrunk to 44 percent; Gallup polls show his Hispanic support has dropped below 50 percent; and his loss of support among Jews led to Turner’s election, he said, adding that the strongest surviving leg of his 2008 coalition is the African-American community.

“The main thing to understand is that the voters who are going to determine the victory are the voters in the center, who Obama brilliantly got in 2008,” Penn said. Today, Obama has ”lost a lot of the support from professionals who are critical to his elections.”

In 2008, professionals — including many in New York, Northern Virginia, Los Angeles, Boston, Silicon Valley and other coastal centers — provided much of the funding, many votes and critical momentum for the Obama campaign. On election night, he won a narrow majority of the votes from upper-income voters.

But in the 2009 elections, a year before the 2010 GOP sweep, upper-income voters in Virginia’s Fairfax County and New York’s Westchester County voted for Republican candidates.

To win, Obama has to get his approval numbers above 50 percent, Penn said, and “regain the center by showing he’s got common sense solutions for [independent voters’] problems.”

Obama may still be aided by the GOP candidate, Penn clarified. The Republican opponent may be so unacceptable that he pushes swing-voters back to Obama, “but it is not the time to be [splitting] the tremendous support [Obama] had from lower-income and upper-income voters.”

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