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Obama’s game plan

Michael Tomasky / 4 July 2011

It was a rare confessional moment for Barack Obama. At a Miami fundraiser in mid-June, the president acknowledged that it’s “not as cool” as it was in 2008 to support him. It isn’t just a matter of fewer hip posters and viral videos. It’s a matter of votes.

Rekindling the enthusiasm of African-Americans, educated white liberals, Latinos, young people, and union members — the Democratic Party’s most loyal and progressive members — will be a huge challenge. After all, you can only elect the first African-American president once, and the past two and a half years have deeply disappointed many liberals. “I know a lot of the kids who worked hard in 2008,” says Hodding Carter III, adviser to the last one-term Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) and now a professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Obama and his people have heard this sort of thing so often that they no longer bother to take umbrage. When I asked chief Obama reelection guru David Axelrod about this sense of disillusionment, he patiently ticked off a list of accomplishments: health-care reform, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” financial regulatory reform, the drawdown from Iraq, student-loan reform. “Did we keep faith with the things that the president said he would do when he ran?” asks Axelrod. “There is a long list of things he said he’d do that we in fact did.”

It’s a solid inventory. But it’s countered by the undeniable reality that the country hasn’t noticeably moved in a more liberal direction (quite the opposite), and by the widely held perception among progressives that Obama will never wage fierce battle on behalf of liberal ideals. When I interviewed Justin Ruben, the executive director of MoveOn.org, whose five million members (many in swing states) must be revved up and mobilised if the president is to be reelected, he gave me four or five variants of the line “People need to feel like the president and the Democrats are really going to fight for their side.” Unfortunately, making tough, partisan economic arguments has never been the president’s strong suit. “Since the beginning of his candidacy in 2007, Barack has struggled to put together a sustained, winning economic argument,” said Simon Rosenberg of NDN, a Washington-based think tank. “With ‘Morning in America’ not really a viable option for 2012, he is going to have to draw brighter lines with the GOP, and particularly do much more to discredit their failed and reckless economic approach.”

The base vote can still emerge in large numbers, but the dominant factor this time won’t be hope and change. Instead, the factors will be fear of the other side, state and local political conditions (think of how motivated Democrats are to regain control of their politics in Wisconsin), and demographic changes that are still redounding to the Democrats’ benefit. And because we elect presidents by states, the place to assess Obama’s prospects is on the ground.

Wake County, N.C.; Arapahoe County, Colo.; Franklin County, Ohio—these are representative base Democratic counties. They are in swing states, which means the president will need a big vote in these places to offset a presumed high conservative turnout in other parts of these states. And they are counties that have only recently become solidly Democratic, because of demographic changes.

“Obama’s majorities in these counties are not secure,” says Ruy Teixeira, coauthor of the 2002 book ‘The Emerging Democratic Majority’, which predicted the bluing of states like then-red Colorado. “He needs a full-bore mobilisation effort in these counties to get his supporters out and develop the margins he needs to carry swing states like Ohio, Colorado, and North Carolina.”

Todd Mata, the county Democratic chairman, acknowledges that “a lot of people are a little disillusioned, rightly or wrongly,” with Obama, but he says that on the ground, the party structure is working much more closely than last time with Organising for America (OFA), the Obama get-out-the-vote vehicle. Obama might benefit here from a local GOP that “doesn’t have it together,” according to Scott Adler, political-science professor at the University of Colorado.

When I spoke with Joy Hoffman, the county Republican chairwoman, she did acknowledge she’s herding cats, between the more traditional Republicans and no fewer than “15 or 16 distinct Tea Party groupings in the county.” But, she insisted, the state GOP is picking up the pieces from its 2010 debacle, when its gubernatorial candidate got just 11 per cent of the vote. It’s pretty difficult to imagine another nearly 20-point win. But Greg Schultz, the county’s Democratic chairman and the state director for OFA, says an on-the-ground network exists today in a way it didn’t even in 2008. “There’s a structure that remains in place today that is self-organising,” he boasts, even in Republican-leaning parts of the county like Westerville.

Another factor that might motivate Democrats in Franklin, and across Ohio: the unpopular Republican governor, John Kasich. He won a narrow victory over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland in 2010, when base Republican voters turned out and their Democratic counterparts did not. Now Kasich and his public-employee-union-bashing bill (S.B. 5) are targets of rage. “If the Democrats are smart,” says Herb Asher of the Ohio State University, “here and in Wisconsin they’ll have a very simple theme: Elections have consequences. Look at what happened in your states.”

That’ll be about the strongest argument Obama can make to base voters: it could, and will, be a lot worse if you don’t vote for me. That’s true, and fear is usually a pretty good motivator in politics. But it still isn’t what people were hoping for, and it seems inevitable that some percentage of the most loyal Democrats will stay home. In these three counties and others like them, that percentage will be the difference between reelection and retirement.

© Newsweek

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