President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday night framed the issues in a way that polls show commands a majority of the American people's support. Unless Republicans find a way to reframe the debate -- and I don't see how they can -- or change their position on the rich contributing more in tax revenues -- and I don't see how they will -- Barack Obama holds a big advantage on the issues heading into the general election.
And that is the case especially if the economy continues to trend up, as is the current indication. Indeed, by October, the president's best campaign ad may be a rerun of Ronald Reagan's theme in 1984, after coming out of a deep recession in 1982, when it appeared that he would be a one-term president. That ad could run a photo of Ronald Reagan next to Barack Obama, and the slogan could be: "It's morning in America ... again."
Polls show that his theme of "fair play and shared responsibility" -- manifested by his proposal to cut payroll taxes and pay for the cut by increasing taxes on the super-wealthy -- consistently receives 70 to 80 percent support.
The latest CBS-New York Times survey shows that the president's endorsement of the "Buffett Rule" -- i.e., that millionaires should pay the same tax rates as their secretaries -- also has majority support among all Americans.
Moreover, Democrats will pick up additional momentum if the GOP presidential candidates continue to conduct an ugly food fight, violating Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment, forming a circular firing squad as they try to select their presidential nominee.
Here Mitt Romney has shown himself, during recent debates, to be especially harsh, negative, angry and, on his belated release of his taxes, disingenuous. It's no wonder that in the CBS-Times poll, Romney has dropped in favorability ratings among political independents -- just in the last several weeks -- from 41 percent-34 percent to 51 percent-23 percent unfavorable, more than a 2-to-1 negative perception by the independent bloc of voters who decide national elections.
Despite these recent positive political and economic signs and a good State of the Union speech, the president still has a lot to worry about, as can be seen from the recent national poll results.
Obama is not out of the woods yet. He just hit 50 percent job approval in the Washington Post/ABC poll for the first time since the brief spike after the killing of Osama bin Laden. And he still shows relative weakness among independent voters.
And remember, it was just two weeks ago that the CBS/Times poll showed that in a head-head contest, he was in a statistical dead heat in the general election not only with Mitt Romney, but with Ron Paul. Ron Paul!
In the same poll, while he was ahead of Rick Perry by 11 percent, his percentage was 50 -- i.e., he couldn't get a majority of the polling sample to choose him over Rick Perry. Rick Perry!
My concern: He devoted only five minutes during Tuesday night's one-hour-plus speech to the national debt and deficit. And he still hasn't really backed his own Bowles-Simpson Debt Reduction Commission report. That, to me, is the key to winning the independent vote and to maximizing his chance to win reelection, even if the economy doesn't bounce back significantly, by October.
President Clinton addressed this issue in the first year of his presidency. He defied the liberals by cutting spending and the conservatives by raising taxes, and eight years later, he had converted a $300 billion deficit into a trillion-dollar surplus.
If President Obama doesn't take the lead on debt reduction and take the risk of being criticized by the base of his party for cutting spending and reforming Medicare and Social Security, and by the Tea Party right wing for raising taxes by closing tax loopholes, as Bowles-Simpson recommended, I fear that no matter how well he frames the "fairness-tax-the-rich" issues, he risks losing independent voters and, no matter how weak the Republican nominee, losing in November.
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Mr. Davis is the principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic legal crisis management. He served as President Clinton's Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of the forthcoming book to be published by Simon & Schuster, "Crisis Tales -- Five Rules for Handling Scandals in Business, Politics and Life." He can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@LannyDavis).