There’s been little or no bounce for Romney/Ryan from the GOP convention, on the eve of the Democratic convention. The race is static and has been static for the last several months, because in general, we have a polarized country with few undecideds. Frank Newport of Gallup has both Presidential candidates basically at 46% since April, right through to today.
This will be an election where the race can get decided on the margins, where the little things matter. And I think there are plenty of stories to tell about that, from the ground game to the efforts at voter suppression. I plan to tell those stories in the coming days.
But it’s worth both looking back and looking forward to understand, after the bunting comes down and the hanging chads put away, what the Presidency looks like as a policymaking position. The past we can recite pretty much in rote fashion. Ryan Grim and Sam Stein do an excellent job recapping the last four years, how the man who campaigned on a movement-based vision for inviting the public to take part in their democracy closed the door once he got into Washington and played an inside game. He bought off special interests to pass health care, and bowed to the swing votes in both parties to nudge things like stimulus across the line. When the public got engaged, usually through an outside game but more gradually as part of Presidential politics, the results typically improved. To use just one example, unions scaring Blanche Lincoln with a primary did more for derivatives reform (at least on paper) than any insider meeting and bargain with K Street. Eventually the White House tested this outside strategy, and it helped force Republicans’ hand on the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits extension.
That’s a somewhat simplistic version of how the last four years went (for instance, tucked in that UI extension was a rollback of benefit weeks), but it’s good for a rough sketch. And the President says that he wants to engage the public more in a second term to reach goals and priorities.
Over his first term, Mr. Obama, 51 years old, has fundamentally shifted his view of modern presidential power, say those who know him well. He is now convinced the most essential part of his job, given politically divided Washington, is rallying public opinion to his side.
As a result, if he wins a second term, Mr. Obama plans to remain in campaign mode. “Barack is grayer, but he’s wiser from the battles,” says Charles Ogletree, a friend and one of Mr. Obama’s professors at Harvard. “This time Barack will use the bully pulpit.”
The president views a second term in some ways as a second chance, an opportunity to approach the office differently, according to close aides. He would like to tackle issues such as climate change, immigration, education and filibuster reform.
If that were the set of issues for the election, and if the bully pulpit were the method employed, it sounds good. However, during the debt limit debate, President Obama – for the first time in his Presidency – appealed to the public to make calls for a “balanced” deficit reduction plan, which we now know included increases to the Medicare eligibility age and cuts to Social Security benefits. There’s no guarantee that this new philosophy of engagement will get put to positive use.
That’s particularly true because the President is making things harder on himself in ways that, if you didn’t know better, you would say were intentional:
The Obama campaign is primarily focused on winning the 270 electoral votes needed to gain a second term. The president does almost no fundraising for Senate or House candidates and hasn’t transferred money to other party election committees. His numerous campaign offices rarely coordinate with local candidates or display signs for anyone but Mr. Obama.
At rallies, Mr. Obama seldom urges supporters to volunteer—or even vote—for other Democrats running for office. Sometimes, he mentions other politicians in the room without noting that they are seeking re-election. He rarely shares the stage with other candidates.
Campaign aides focus on the fact that, if the President does well, downticket candidates will as well. But this reluctance to embrace members of the same party and float above politics fits with the consistent theme of Obama rebutting the image bestowed on him be Republicans by saying that everything he has pursued has been a bipartisan or Republican idea. Read this Parade magazine interview with the Obama family, cover up some identifiers, and you wouldn’t know the political party of the speaker.
(Political party) voters, if you ask them about my particular policy positions, often agree with me. So there’s a difference between (Political party) in Washington and (Political party) and (Political party)-leaning voters around the country. I think that after this election, we’ll be in a position to once again reach out to (Political party) and say that the American people have rendered a judgment, and the positions we’re taking are well within what used to be considered bipartisan centrist approaches [...]
My approach has been pretty consistent from the start; I’ve often proposed ways to solve our problems that used to be embraced by (Political party). There’s no better example than the health care bill, which was designed originally by the now (Political party) standard-bearer and is working pretty well in Massachusetts. The Recovery Act that helped us avoid a depression, a third of it was tax cuts. My hope is that the (Political party), post election, steps back and says, “Now that we’re not so worried about beating the president, maybe we should spend a little time focusing on solving the problems.
And then the campaign wonders about an enthusiasm gap.