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Strategy Corner: Obama -- Don't Bring Back Class Warfare

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Barack Obama is careening down the wrong path towards re-election.

He should be working as a president, not a candidate.

He should be claiming the vital center, not abandoning it.

He should be holding down taxes rather than raising them.

He should be mastering the global economy, not running away from it.

And most of all, he should be bringing the country together rather than dividing it through class warfare.

When Al Gore faced a close presidential race in 2000, he abandoned running on peace and prosperity in favor of the people vs. the powerful, only to see his lead evaporate. When John Kerry was facing a tough race in 2004, he spent the last few months after the convention tacking to the left on the Iraq war and other issues to stimulate the base, only to fall even farther behind.

But when Bill Clinton was facing the fight of his political life in his 1996 re-election, he got rid of all the class warfare language used by traditional Democrats, got behind welfare reform and the balanced budget, and supported a strong, activist government that spent and taxed less rather than more. As a result, Clinton trounced the Republican nominee and was the first Democrat to serve a full eight years since Roosevelt. And the country got behind the president.

Obama's team actually believes that in the last six months they have courted independent voters and that didn't work, so now they are turning to activating the base with higher taxes on the wealthy. However, he never made any meaningful appeal to those voters in terms they would understand. He supported extending the Bush tax cuts, temporarily zoomed up in the polls, and then promptly repudiated what he had done, only to then fall back down.

The 2010 mid-term elections were fought over Obama's healthcare plan and on his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy by ending the Bush tax cuts. The results were, in his own words, a "shellacking." After his most recent speech to Congress, voters in New York City's Ninth Congressional District just elected a Republican for the first time since 1920.

And now, Obama is pressing the case for higher taxes, following in the footsteps of Walter Mondale. Higher taxes always seem to poll well, but in reality the country sees that as a last resort.

In Obama's case, it is particularly damaging to his chances for re-election because of the unique coalition he put together in 2008 to win. The President won the lion's share of everyone making under $35,000. He then did very poorly with middle class voters, but he got a remarkable half of the 26% of the voters whose households make over $100,000. Never before have so many voters fallen into that category and never before had so many of them voted Democratic. Even the so-called top 1% making over $200,000 is actually according to the exit polls 6%, and they mostly (52%) voted for Obama. Without similar support from those upper-income voters, Obama has no way to recreate the numbers that sailed him to victory. And while these voters have become far more socially tolerant, they have also become far more impatient when it comes to economic issues.

What was so brilliant about the Obama 2008 election was that it brought together the upper and lower classes in a common mission of hope and change. Today, he is smashing apart that coalition with policies that seem to be about expanding the scope of government by the trillions of dollars (starting with health care) and raising taxes. Such policies will allow him to hold on to his under $35,000 support, but are anathema to the rest -- and especially the unique coalition of new professionals he forged in 2008.

No question that the fiscal problems have become intense, especially after a trillion of stimulus and a trillion of new health care spending that contains a 4.5% tax increase that no one has yet focused on. But if Obama thinks the way to re-election is increased taxation and spending, he is misreading the mid-terms and last week's elections.

America was mad at George W. Bush for increased spending, taking his eye off the economic ball and most of all for a war they thought should never have been fought. America is today just as upset with Obama, who they elected to bring the parties together in the Reaganesque style he championed as a candidate and bring a new generation to government. Instead, they see a tax and spend liberal trying to take taxes and spending to new levels. The independents and upper middle class voters who were with him last time are abandoning him in droves.

America wants to see the president focused on stimulating jobs and innovation, not on raising taxes in a near recession. The president could be out there with tax reform that promotes America's greatest asset -- the country's hard working and ever successful professionals -- and yet raises funds by closing the gap on taxes on capital. He could have tax reform that righted the balance between capital and wage income without opening up class warfare. And he could be moving forward on immigration reform, on trade deals, on new policies and programs that put America at the frontier of new technologies on energy and pharmaceuticals.

Instead, the president has wandered into the thicket of class warfare that will only compound the difficulties before his climb to re-election.

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