For Obama Campaign, Reasons for Optimism
by Anne Kornblut, Washington Post, December 13 2011 -
Against the backdrop of a tightening Republican presidential contest, much of the hierarchy of President Obama’s campaign is decamping from Chicago to Washington on Tuesday for a high-profile debriefing on the the state of the president’s reelection effort.
The message will be predictably upbeat. For Obama advisers in need of a little lift after months of bad news, there have been some encouraging signs in recent weeks.
At the top of the list is an erratic Republican presidential field roiled by the ascent of Newt Gingrich, whom the Democrats view as a weak challenger to the president. They also take some credit for the Gingrich surge, because it appears to have partly been a result of a devastating video attack on Mitt Romney, the former House speaker’s main rival, produced by Obama’s longtime admaker.
A speech by Obama last week in Kansas — a searing attack on GOP economic policies — was hailed by one liberal critic as the “most important economic speech of his presidency.” This week, Obama is celebrating the end of the U.S. war in Iraq, making good on one of this central campaign promises. Even the unemployment rate has dipped.
With 11 months before the election and the economy still in the doldrums, the briefing Tuesday by campaign manager Jim Messina, senior adviser David Axelrod, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter and spokesman Ben LaBolt will hardly be a declaration of victory, but some of the president’s strongest supporters detect a shift.
“I think a couple of months ago, we saw it as a much more difficult race,” said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which endorsed Obama last week and has already spent $25 million toward his reelection. “A lot of people didn’t realize yet what the Republican lineup was going to look like, and what they were going to talk about and stand up for. Recently, with the debates the Republicans have had among themselves, people understand more.”
As recently as September, analysts and loyal supporters alike were quietly asking whether the president could overcome the dismal economic landscape to win reelection.
Obama’s overall standing in national public polls has improved slightly since hitting new lows earlier this fall, but on the economy — the major focus of the campaign — he remains at or near record lows. A CBS News poll released Friday shows few blaming Obama for the state of the economy but just 28 percent of Americans saying he’s made things better. And advantages Obama had on dealing with jobs after rolling out his administration’s plan to a joint session of Congress in September quickly evaporated.
Still, Democrats feel a lot better that they did just weeks ago. Or, as one veteran Democratic operative put it, “there are reasons not to feel suicidal.”
Cutter, the the deputy campaign manager, says the campaign is prepared for the expected momentum shifts. “The presidential race is going to have lots of twists and turns — just look at the Republican primary,” Cutter said. “What’s not going to change is that this is going to be a close election and a fundamental choice. We feel good about how that choice is shaping up.”
In the regular data they receive from lead Obama pollster Joel Benenson, along with the qualitative material gathered from focus groups conducted by another senior Obama researcher, David Binder, Obama aides said they have seen selected glimmers of hope, especially compared with the worst days of the summer, during the debate over the debt ceiling.
“There was a clear line of demarcation” between that debate and what followed in September, including the president’s American Jobs Act and his executive actions on mortgages and student relief, one Obama adviser said.
“They are taking a short-term view, because the bigger, longer frame is so bad,” said former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove.
Yet senior Obama advisers and supporters are cautiously pointing to signs that perhaps the president’s fortunes have turned a corner. Among their favorites: the laundry list of politically tricky statements that front-runners Romney and Gingrich have made during the Republican race, including Romney’s contention that “corporations are people” and his statement that foreclosures should be allowed to “hit the bottom,” along with Gingrich’s notion of putting children to work as janitors in schools. Not to mention, they said, the differing economic views between the president and the leading Republicans.
The president’s approval ratings have been mired in the low- to mid-40-percent range, even as the job market has started to recover in recent months. One reason: Economic pessimism remains widespread, with just 6 percent of Americans saying they are hearing “mostly good news” about the economy.
The Obama team “should not feel the least bit comfortable,” said Republican pollster Linda DiVall, who has worked for both Romney and Gingrich but is uncommitted this year. She said that between Obama’s low approval ratings, voters’ negative feelings about the direction of the country and the way unemployment is calculated — to exclude people who have stopped looking for work — there is very little good news for the president.
“None of the metrics for Obama seem to be changing dramatically whatsoever,” DiVall said.
Indeed, the moments of triumph for Democrats have been fairly episodic. One such moment came two weeks ago, when the Democratic National Committee released a video titled “Mitt vs. Mitt” that displayed, in painful juxtaposition, inconsistent statements by Romney over the years. Although the ad cost relatively little — $21,930 — it circulated widely and caused a tremendous buzz just as Gingrich began to surge.
Democrats described the Romney ad as picking low-hanging fruit — and a harbinger of attacks to come if he is the nominee.
“The hardest part of production was picking what to use,” said Jim Margolis, who produced the video. Romney, Margolis said, “gave us a lot of choices.”
Overall, Obama advisers said they feel more comfortable with their message than they did earlier in the year, now that Obama has settled into a rhetorical groove.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said that earlier this year, especially during the debt-ceiling talks, the administration seemed adrift. “Instead of picking a lane, they were swerving over a variety of lanes,” Garin said. “Now they’ve picked their lane, and it’s a lot easier to go forward once you’ve picked your lane,” he said.
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.