The President Encourages Base While Poll Numbers Drop

by George Kennedy on September 19, 2011

 

The President Encourages Base While Poll Numbers Drop

David Axelrod, a senior campaign aide to the president, forwarded a letter to Democrats on Capitol Hill in effect advising them to “stick with the president”; he is their best bet in 2012. He cited the president’s approval rating among Democrats and how he would fare when matched in a general campaign against the chief contenders for the Republican nomination. It may prove to be true that Obama is the Democrats best bet in 2012 but, currently, it is not proven to a diverse coalition of voters who elected him in 2008.

There is the small matter of trust and confidence. One poll respondent said, “I am not against compromise, but I voted for a backbone.” Hear! Hear! Small, but vocal, choruses of Democrats around the country, seasoned pols, are reading polls, tapping into public sentiment, and the signs register more than just caution. They register alarm! Thirty-four percent in a New York Times/CBS News poll approve of the presidents handling of the economy but 57 percent disapprove. Obama may disagree with Carville as a barometer of Democratic concern, but others do not. George W. Bush was oblivious to warning signs as his successor apparently is.

It is common wisdom President Obama was dealt a hand with all Jokers when he assumed the presidency. I think he thought there were a few aces in the deck. Nevertheless, he accepted the hand and agreed to be judged on his skill as a player. I don’t gamble nor do I play cards. However, I do know that a good poker player values strategy, patience, the art of the bluff, and how to read body language. That is also true in politics. If you’re a professional in either arena, a win inspires and more wins inspire even more. Wins, large and small, inspire fear among your enemies, and trust, and credibility with your supporters. Consistency is currency in the bank and political leverage – if you’re winning. Your track record at the poker table or in politics conditions the reflexes of your opponents, thus hopefully improving your odds. They begin to focus on you rather than on their strategy. Set me straight if I’m mistaken.

A broad cross-section of American voters, including a huge contingent of college students, reposed their trust and their confidence in the president and it is now shaken. That happens in all forms of government. However, what distinguishes one form of governance from another is the freedom voters have to effect how and who governs them. We express our concerns and the president says “stick with me!” Obviously, he knows something that eludes the rest of us. I concede that; he is the president.

But, our 10-year involvement in two open-ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a stark reminder of why the timing of that advice may be inopportune. We have tens-of-thousands of combat troops in both countries while being told that funding for wars takes precedence over healthcare, job creation, clean air and water, safe schools and deteriorating infrastructure. Debt reduction became the national obsession, not job creation. Consumer protections; well, that’s a joke. We knew Obama would not win every hand, but when did he break a sweat for us?

Axelrod’s letter underlined the president’s popularity and his alleged strengths against any of his Republican competitors. This is not a contest judged solely on popularity. I think many would agree that had the president formulated and fought for a plan to alleviate the fears of the millions of Americans clinging to the edge of oblivion, his popularity would be off the scale. Had he proved to the millions of Americans with questionable futures that he had their backs, they would now have his.

The Republicans and their obstructionist tactics would be the least of his worries. This next presidential election would be his to lose. To further sow doubt among wavering Obama supporters, some Republicans now say the next presidential election is theirs to lose. The vexing problem facing Obama is the image of a president whose primary strategy against the Republicans has been to seek common ground on issues that do not reflect the values and priorities of most Americans while consistently ceding more ground than he gains. Remember the troika of trust, fear, and credibility?

We are the spectators to and stakeholders in the game and President Obama’s play should have inspired trust, confidence, and credibility. I am visualizing the crowd ringing the president’s poker table bearing silent witness to their guy’s play. Where is the buzz among the crowd for his dexterity, adroitness? The silent looks of approval? The muted high-fives during the break? Merely encouraging us to stick with him rings hollow, especially if his opponents are perceived to again have the stronger hand. A president does not inspire by appeasing his enemies or when “77 percent of Americans say they feel things have gotten seriously off track in this country”, the highest percentage since January 2009, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.

The president’s strategy going into the 2012 elections, say his aides, is to frame the Republican contender in the harshest terms possible rather than speak of his successes at the poker table. Republican strategists anticipate this. This is the game they play! If that is the president’s strategy, it would raise a question or two. It does, in fact! For months, we have been slipping him notes suggesting, not advising, that he step up his game. Earlier, the president reproved his base while trying to appear balanced and reasonable before Republicans who, by the way, were never impressed.

The president stuck to his strategy, kept us at bay – even now that we no longer suggest – we advise! Confidence in his handling of the economy and on job creation is at a low for him. This had to factor in Axelrod’s letter and the president’s latest proposal: The “Buffet Tax.” The timing is propitious since it will sharpen the contrast between himself and the Republicans heading into 2012. He could also allay fears that he would agree to major changes in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid without demanding new revenues.

Perhaps the president now appreciates we always were the stakeholders in the game we elected him to play. The stakes are the quality of our lives, our severely diminished stake in this country, our bleak futures and those of our children. Our options remain as they were at the outset: stick with our player in the game or choose a replacement. We’d prefer not to opt out. It does happen. How much time remains before we have to make a choice?

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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