When he ran for president, Barack Obama’s effervescent campaign was about hope, optimism, national unity, and, above all, the future. He offered a vision of a new world cooperatively shaped by a new generation. The message was mostly positive and upbeat, in part because it was obvious that outgoing Republican President George W. Bush had made a hash of the economy and led the country into two controversial wars. Americans, Obama strategists felt, wanted the uplift of looking forward.
Two years later the president is tentatively unveiling the strategy he and fellow Democrats will pursue in this fall’s election season, and it has a heavy dose of ... looking backward. It’s going to be as much about history as hope, and more about attacking Republicans than promoting his own vision. The goal is to give pause to independent voters eager to punish Obama for their economic insecurity by voting for GOP candidates. The message: we can’t return power to the very people who gave us the catastrophic Great Recession to begin with.
At a fundraiser in New York last week, Obama previewed the two lines of anti-Republican attack. One is historical. “After they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back,” Obama said of the GOP. “No! You can’t drive. We don’t want to have to go back into the ditch. We just got the car out.” The other is that Republicans are causing gridlock and, to the extent voters are upset with Congress, it’s the GOP’s fault. “We got our mops and our brooms out here and were cleaning stuff out and they’re sitting there saying, ‘Hold the broom better, that’s not how you mop.’ Don’t tell me how to mop,” Obama said. “Pick up a mop! Do some work on behalf of the American people to solve some of these problems.”
Elections are always a game of comparison, but attack politics are not supposed to be part of the Obama brand, and they could be undercut by what Americans like best about him: his steady, genial calm. So why is the White House adopting this strategy? The reasons are in the poll numbers. For one, the economy remains iffy and most Americans (76 percent in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) still think we are in a recession. Unemployment remains in double digits in many states—12.5 percent in California, with many inland counties in the 20s—and state budgets will soon have to be slashed again. Public employment, which has grown in the recession, is about to shrink.
There are signs of recovery, to be sure, and most fair-minded analysts would say that Obama’s calm leadership, even before he took office, helped save the U.S. and the world from a more widespread and immediate meltdown. But it’s hard to quantify that, and most of the immediate, sweeping measures that he and the Democrats took—the $800 billion stimulus bill; the auto bailouts; the continuing bank, AIG, and Fannie Mae bailouts; the health-care bill—are simply not popular. More important, people are dubious about whether they have worked, or will work in the long run. In the NBC poll, only 18 percent of those polled thought that the stimulus had “already helped improve the economy” and only another 20 percent thought it ever would.
This much is clear: the president can’t lead the Democrats in the midterm elections by bragging about the stimulus. But what he can do is remind everyone of the global meltdown that clobbered us all on Bush’s watch in 2008—the consequence, in good measure of Bush policies and those of former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. And he can attack what polls show to be the least popular political entity on the American landscape: the congressional Republican Party. According to the NBC poll, only 8 percent of voters have a very positive view of the GOP.
That’s the key number—and the core of Obama’s new strategy.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.