By Michael M. Rosen
Many liberal pundits have recently urged President Barack Obama to “fight” Republicans on policy issues to secure reelection. In his latest “jobs” speech, the White House responded positively to their exhortations. But fighting too hard is a perilous strategy for a president whose only enduring strength thus far has been his likability.
Paul Krugman has argued from Day One that Obama has been far too accommodating to his political opponents, variously labeling him “President Pushover” and suggesting he might as well wear a “Kick me” sign on his back.
Psychologist Drew Westen penned a widely circulated New York Times op-ed claiming Obama has failed to push back on his political opponents in the way that FDR supposedly once did, describing the president’s approach as “capitulation cast as compromise” and asserting that Obama “chose to avert his gaze” from our economic crisis.
In a recent Salon essay, former MSNBC host Cenk Ugyar offered a lengthy “rope-a-dope” metaphor, characterizing the administration as “getting knocked around the ring,” “lying flat on their back on the canvas” and “beat[en] to a pulp every night.”
And earlier this month, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, following Obama to the podium at a campaign rally, urged “war” against the tea party.
In his jobs speech, and since, Obama seems at long last to have followed this guidance, repeatedly insisting that Congress “pass this jobs plan right away,” in its entirety and without changes. The tone and content of the address were unmistakably confrontational, as have been subsequent press conferences.
“The man was on fire!” enthused Times columnist Charles M. Blow after the speech.
Obama has “gone on the offensive,” observed Sam Youngman, White House correspondent for The Hill, “appears ready to fight,” and has assumed a “combat posture.” He notes that “what the president’s aides want – and what they need – is for independents and Democrats to view Obama as their fighter. And after a summer of polls painting Obama as a weak leader, the president is desperate to be viewed as the one politician in Washington fighting for the middle class.”
Yet this approach could backfire badly against the president, one of whose most attractive traits – a key factor that catapulted him into the U.S. Senate and the presidency – is his even-tempered bipartisan rhetoric.
Recall that when a younger Obama waxed rhapsodic at the 2004 Democratic National Convention about overcoming red-state/blue-state divisions, he appealed to something more broadly American than rank partisanship. During his 2008 campaign for the presidency, Obama ran, in Westen’s terms, as “a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue.” And while in office, he has cultivated this sense of being above the fray, unsullied by politics.
This temperament is the key reason Obama remains personally likable. As Ben Smith noted earlier this month, the latest POLITICO/Battleground poll reveals that one of the few bright spots for Obama is his lasting personal popularity: 74 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat approve of Obama as a person.
If, however, Obama takes a more aggressive tack in his reelection campaign, calling out the GOP and attacking the character of his eventual opponent – neither of which Obama focused on in 2008 – he will squander this otherwise very potent weapon and risk driving down his personal likability, along with the remainder of his poll numbers.
Personal attacks against hopefuls like Mitt Romney, as Smith and Jonathan Martin reported last month, run the risk of increasing voter sympathy with the attacked candidate – a backlash Obama can ill afford.
Yet beginning with the jobs plan, just such a damn-the-torpedoes approach appears to be in the works. Youngman notes the brazenly cynical strategy the administration appears to be employing: “The dirty secret inside the White House is that while the jobs plan is what Obama really wants, he can live happily with the alternative – a fall battle that ends with Republicans voting against tax cuts for the middle class.”
Whether this is a battle Obama can win remains to be seen, especially as polls show weak initial support for the jobs bill and several key Democrats are demurring. But simply by engaging in this battle, thus satisfying the urges of liberal activists, the president is courting defeat.