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Why They Are High-Fiving at the Obama White House

With the president's speech Tuesday in Kansas, we now have a clear and arguably definitive sense as to where the 2012 Obama campaign is going.

To be sure, it has been clear for a while that the administration was planning to take a populist tack.  But now, with the president’s explicit reference to Teddy Roosevelt, and by wrapping himself in the mantle of income inequality, there is little doubt.

The White House has tried a number of approaches this year: distance from the fray in Washington, compromise with the Republicans, and economic optimism.

Distancing President Obama from the economic mess, while tactically efficient, is not a reelection strategy in these times.  Harry Truman notwithstanding, there is simply too much economic dislocation for the president to blame somebody else.

Compromise, while very important, is something that the White House never fully committed to. The White House kept itself at an arm's length from the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan when it was released last January – opting instead to pursue a so-called "grand bargain" budget compromise with Speaker John Boehner – which imploded during the debt ceiling debacle this past summer.

Simply put, the White House has concluded, with some justification, that it can't compromise and position themselves in the center when negotiating with an intransigent, obstructionist colleague.

Moreover, philosophically, the president has never really been comfortable with the centrist kind of positions President Bill Clinton took in the mid 90s, and with the kind of compromises Clinton reached with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Finally, President Obama’s attempt to emphasize growth in the economy or the turnaround of the unemployment situation, even given the .4% decline in unemployment last month, is also unsustainable. There is simply too much bad economic news and too great of a possibility for the country to fall into a recession for the White House to commit itself to that course – notwithstanding the very limited economic growth and the number of new jobs that have been created in the last year or so.

So that leaves the president with populism.

President Obama is comfortable with this argument, as there is a widespread sense in the country that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.  

Occupy Wall Street has provided at least a convenient vehicle to air those allegations in a way that, at the very least, provides political theater.  With the recent arrests and civil disobedience, the White House now knows that they can try to surf the arguments of the movement without explicitly linking themselves to its principle activities, actions, and approach.

The White House then will wrap its jobs policy and its tax policy in a populist mantle, and fight a campaign like the one Al Gore fought in 2000, when he said the fight in America was about the people versus the powerful. 

And while I have never been, and am not a supporter of this kind of politics, in the absence of any other credible approach, this probably makes sense for a White House that is bent on dividing the country and is not at all committed to reconciliation.

Moreover, as John McCain himself has conceded, the Democrats, particularly on the payroll tax, have been gaining the upper hand.  In the absence of a Republican narrative – a narrative that is missing, absent and unclear – the Obama approach has a chance to work. 

There's just one problem with the Obama populist approach, however, and that is reality. America's unemployment rate is unacceptably high, the country's economic growth is unacceptably low, and there is a clear sense that Washington isn't working. Three-quarters of the electorate says that the country is off on the wrong track, and only 43% give the president a positive job rating in the most recent Gallup polling.

Put simply, presidential elections tend to be referendums on the incumbent, and if that is the case in 2012, it will be very difficult for Obama to win re-election.

That being said, with the Republican party divided and currently without a message, and with the White House having hit on a strategy that has at least some public resonance, the Obama campaign has to be high-fiving today – even if their victory is limited, narrow and not necessarily long-lasting or substantive.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and Fox News contributor. His most recent book is "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. Watch Doug Schoen, Pat Caddell and host John LeBoutiller Mondays at 2 p.m. ET on FoxNews.com LIVE's "Campaign Confidential."

Douglas E. Schoen has served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton and is currently working with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He has more than 30 years experience as a pollster and political consultant. He is also a Fox News contributor and co-host of "Fox News Insiders" Sundays on Fox News Channel and Mondays at 10:30 am ET on FoxNews.com Live. He is the author of ten books including,“Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What it Means for 2012 and Beyond” (Rowman and Littlefield 2012). Follow Doug on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.