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How Obama Can Win

Over the last week or so, after casually assuming that President Obama will probably win reelection, the notion that he won't is gaining sudden momentum. Clearly, the economy poses a very serious risk, and will determine the basic shape of the electoral landscape. On the other hand, some campaigns underperform or overperform the election fundamentals. A couple right-of-center writers today persuasively suggest reasons Obama should probably overperform. Eli Lehrer points out that Obama's approval ratings show a certain stubborn resilience:

Here’s an interesting data point however: Obama’s approval rating lows, to date, are higher than those for any President since Kennedy...
A president’s approval rating “floor” on the other hand, does seem to reflect something real: the number of people who will stick with the President’s policies even in very tough times.

And Ramesh Ponnuru argues along similar lines:

After last weekend, Republicans will also say: Has America’s credit improved or deteriorated?If the election is fought on those lines, then Obama will almost certainly lose. His strategy will therefore be to make it a choice election. He is going to want the small number of swing voters to think: No, I’m not satisfied with how things are going and I have my doubts about Obama, but I’m more worried about the radicalism of the Republicans on Medicare and their fealty to big business.
After last weekend, Republicans will also say: Has America’s credit improved or deteriorated?
As far as anyone can tell today, perceptions of the economy on Election Day are going to be closer to what they were in 2008 than what they were in 2004. That’s what the Republican referendum theory has going for it. But the president’s approval rating tells a different story. Since Obama’s honeymoon ended, it has moved in a fairly narrow range, never going below 44 percent and rarely going above 51 percent in the RCP average. It doesn’t put him in cinch-to-win or sure-loser territory.
That suggests that the election is going to be a choice -- and that merely being an acceptable alternative to a failed incumbent won’t be enough for the Republicans to win the White House.

What ties this together, I think, is the public's deep distrust of the Republican Party. Americans turned against the GOP en masse at the end of the Bush administration and never turned back. Republicans won the midterm elections in part by simply escaping public wrath against Democratic-controlled Washington, and in part by exploiting a much smaller, older, whiter electorate than you'd see in a presidential year. But very high-profile, very crazy Republican rule in the House of Representatives has rekindled and actually deepened the public's distrust.

Today's CNN poll is quite striking. In October of 2010, both parties were viewed about as favorably by the public (Democrats stood at 46% favorable/47% unfavorable, Republicans 44/42.) The Democratic party today is about the same -- 47% view it favorably, 47% unfavorably. But the Republican Party's favorability has collapsed -- 33% of Americans view it favorably, 59% unfavorably. That -26% favorability gap is lower than the party's rating before the 2006 election (-14%) or the 2008 election (-16%.) The GOP is completely toxic.

Now, one should caution that the Republican nominee will probably be able to distance himself a bit from the Congressional party. But Obama's strategy has to revolve around reducing his opponent's distance from the party. Today's story by Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin, suggesting that Obama's campaign plans to personally discredit Mitt Romney, suggests a campaign decision that's not just morally questionable but politically questionable as well.

The Obama campaign seems to have cast about for the last election in which a president with mediocre approval ratings, stopped at 2004, and decided it should therefore do the same thing Bush did. It certainly helps that they may -- may; I still think Romney is highly vulnerable -- face a Republican nominee with a record of extreme flip-flopping. But the far more straightforward message for Obama seems to me to be painting his opponent as, well, a Republican. That's an easy case to make!

Mitt Romney is probably the strongest potential opponent. But nobody is thinking right now about his general election liabilities. Here is an important fact about Romney that nobody ever mentions: He does not have an economic plan. He talks incessantly about jobs. But hs actual program to create them does not exist. Here is what his website offers in place of an economic plan: 

Over the course of this campaign, Mitt will lay out a detailed plan for what he will do as President to jump-start economic growth and help create jobs. His plan will be based on the following principles:
  • Right-size government by cutting spending, repealing Obamacare, and ending wasteful programs

  • Make American businesses competitive in the global economy

  • Open markets abroad, on fair terms, for American goods and services

  • Ensure energy security and independence for America

  • Train and prepare American workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow

This can be summarized as "Plan TBA."

Now, maybe Romney will manage to win the nomination without first laying out a program. But, if his Republican opponents are remotely competent, they'll force him to explain his plan before he wins the nomination. And that plan will force him to take a lot of unpopular positions. The public hated Bush's economic positions and considered him only interested in helping the rich and business. Since Bush left the scene, the Republican Party has moved even further to the right and adopted even more unpopular positions. Now it's not just tax cuts for the rich, it's cuts to Medicare, deregulating Wall Street and greenhouse gas pollution.

Obama's path to reelection seems perfectly obvious. People are unhappy with the status quo, but they don't want to put the Republicans back in charge.