Published May 25, 2012
“There may be value for that type of experience, but it’s not in the White House.”
-- President Obama campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa attacking Republican Mitt Romney’s time as the CEO of Bain Capital. Obama also called Romney’s speech in the city a week before a “cow pie of distortion.”
President Obama is working hard to try to repair relations with white, middle-class voters. After months of shoring up the liberal base and fundraising for a very expensive campaign, Obama is now looking for votes in the middle.
The hard pivot came immediately after Obama’s last big gesture to the Democratic base two weeks ago: an expression of personal, but not official, support for same-sex marriage.
Since then, Obama has been working to recast himself as a more centrist figure, touting his plans for future deficit reduction and wooing working-class white voters on the trail.
Most of all, though, has been his campaign’s attacks on Republican Mitt Romney’s record as a CEO before becoming an Olympic organizer and governor of Massachusetts. Obama bashes Bain Capital on the stump, suggesting that such aggressive profit seeking is disqualifying for a presidential candidate.
The argument, offered more frequently and less artfully by Vice President Joe Biden, is that Romney would use the power of the presidency to take advantage of poor and middle-class people to help himself and other rich dudes.
These attacks are pretty clearly hurting Obama with his ultimate prize in the election cycle: moderate, swing-state suburbanites. Note well that many of the Democrats who have expressed the strongest misgivings about these attacks are from that very tribe. Biden has seen his approval ratings continue to sink as he throws haymakers like Primo Carnera.
To have an incumbent launching character attacks on his opponent so early and so often is unusual. To have Obama delivering such attacks in person and by name across the country in the last week of May is something we’ve not seen in modern American politics.
So what’s the point of all that ugliness for an incumbent president? Why take the chance?
Part of it is Obama’s belief that he must cripple Romney now. If the president can succeed in rendering Romney a toxic asset in the spring, Obama can spend the summer and fall trying to restore some luster to his halo. Also, Democrats believe that they would win a base-versus-base election and wouldn’t mind if independent voters just got so grossed out that they stayed home on Nov. 6.
But it’s also because of the uproar among working-class white voters. We’ve seen the president struggle against marginal candidates and “undeclared” in Democratic primaries in states with high-concentrations of these voters: North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll sums it up quite nicely. Among middle-class, white voters who said they were struggling financially, Obama trailed Romney 58 percent to 32 percent.
That’s a pretty narrow slice of the demographic pie, to be sure, and it’s not as if Obama is going to win any of those states in the fall. But the president cannot afford to be in such bad shape with voters who will likely make up more than a quarter of the electorate this fall, more in some swing states.
In 2008, Obama scored pretty well with white voters with household incomes less than $50,000. He nabbed 47 percent, according to exit polls. That was more than enough to deliver the win given Obama’s massive margins among minority voters.
In Ohio, where white voters under the $50,000 mark were almost 40 percent of the electorate, Obama did even better, grabbing 51 percent of their votes. If Obama were to card a 32 percent in November with that same group, he would lose Ohio by hundreds of thousands of votes.
The president’s supporters looking to explain Obama’s crisis among these voters have wasted no time in asserting that racism is at work. But if that is so, why was the president doing so much better in 2008 with these same voters?
West Virginia’s leading political analyst, Hoppy Kercheval, points out that Boone County was one of only seven of the state’s 55 counties to go for Obama in 2008 but in the state’s Democratic primary this month went to a New Mexican felon serving a sentence in a Texas federal prison.
Voters in Boone County (98.5 percent white) knew that Obama was black in 2008 when they gave him an 11-point win, so where’s the racism? The more obvious answer is that West Virginians are furious at the president over his crackdown on the state’s coal industry. It’s not racist or weird to vote against someone you think is trying to put you out of a job.
But some of the president’s supporters like to flatter themselves by overemphasizing the role of race in the opposition to Obama. They feel wiser and more progressive by assuming that bigotry is at the heart of the opposition to Obama. They also like the idea of racist opposition because it can be used against metropolitan opponents of Obama.
The logic is as follows: If Arkansans voted against Obama because they are racists, all of the president’s opponents must bear the stain. Liberals love to talk about these protest votes because of the chance to mock the president’s opponents as racist hayseeds, which may scare away moderate suburban voters, the folks most sensitive to accusations of racism.
It not only reveals their own bigotry, but also blinds them to the real dangers facing their party in the fall.
The president and his campaign aren’t making the same mistake. Obama and Biden have both made clear that they expect a rougher run than last time because of economic anxiety. This is only half blind.
These voters aren’t just economically insecure. Most of them seem to be convinced that Obama made the situation worse. Obama and Democrats had the same view of the 2010 wipeout for their party: that free-floating economic anxiety alit on them because they happened to be the party in power – a kind of cruel injustice. In truth, voters concluded that the Blue Team had made a hash of things and, just as voters had done with the Red Team four years earlier, tossed them out on their ears.
But Obama sees well enough to know what the problem is, even if he struggles to identify its cause. Hence the risky strategy of opening the general election on back-to-back negative ads and tag-team character attacks on Romney from the president and Biden.
Romney is a ripe target: A quarter-billionaire who is painfully awkward when trying to warm up downscale voters. The Bain attacks may be backfiring, but they may help reverse Romney’s dominance with these voters.
The Supreme Court is set to scramble the election any day now by rendering a decision on Obama’s greatest achievement and worst liability, his 2010 health law. The president very much needs to stop the hemorrhaging with this key demographic before the race gets reset again.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“I love the way the Democrats are now trying to discount the importance of [the Wisconsin recall] election. This is like saying Waterloo was a skirmish in the Belgian wilderness.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.