Only two Democrats in the last 90 years have been reelected to a second term -- Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. The rest of the Democrats have seen their presidencies cut short, and so the historical odds of Obama winning a second term are at first glance not encouraging. But I do believe President Obama can overcome those odds and win reelection if he takes the right road. Standing in his way are high unemployment numbers that are coming down, trillion dollar deficits, low approval ratings, and a public that still sees the country squarely on the wrong track.
The announcement of his candidacy for president on Monday suggests he is going to take a very different approach to reelection than the one we took in 1996. Perhaps the first principle we had was that Bill Clinton was a president first, a candidate second, if at all. In fact, we never really had an announcement at all because the very idea of the campaign was to have none -- to keep the president out of politics and above the fray.
President Obama actually appears at his best when he is campaigning. It's almost as though he sees the presidency as coming with a restraining bolt that holds him back rather than serving as a pedestal that puts him above the rest. He wants to again be the wily challenger, and I think he and his team seem to relish the campaign trail that has been so successful for them
The unprecedented $350,000 a person money-raising goals and early web video announcement suggest that the Obama team is planning to focus on gaining an early fundraising advantage. There is even talk of a billion dollar campaign. Such an advantage would enable him to focus on getting the liberal vote out the same way George Bush in 2004 focused on increasing turnout among conservatives in Ohio and elsewhere. We raised early money for early media that started in June 1995 in swing districts around the country. Today the Internet could also reach those same voters.
Clinton's early media effort, starting with anti-crime spots, was part of a larger campaign to return President Clinton to his core centrist values and later on turn around the voters' views of the economy. In 1996, Clinton also ran as a president with a strong vision for the future, building a bridge to the 21st century, and understanding the problems of new emerging groups like suburban working moms. And he relentlessly sought to abate social problems like teen pregnancy, deadbeat dads, drugs in schools and violence in the media.
I would say that first and foremost, Obama needs to run the early part of this campaign by shadow boxing -- he needs to run against himself and his own image that has emerged in the first several years of his presidency that the Republicans have successfully painted in the media. He has to overcome their depiction of him as a big government liberal, weak leader and out-of-touch president -- all elements they have driven to reduce his approval ratings to 45 percent in the March 27 weekly Gallup poll.
This means he has to make a major move towards fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget as President Clinton did. The deficits are simply too huge not to turn into a major issue against him if left unchecked. And the argument we needed to spend, spend, spend because of the economic crisis won't hold up for another two years.
In 1995, we were steadfast in holding firm against the Republican demands for cuts and were ready to upend them when Newt Gingrich believed people would cheer a government shutdown. We showed how the Republicans didn't want only to cut spending but also had as an ideological goal eliminating programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. We won the battle of the shutdown, but President Clinton each day personally pursued finding common ground. He was at the center of the battle for a balanced budget, not the sidelines. In the end it was his budget that would bring order and balance to the economy, not that of the Republicans.
And Clinton faced a similar problem of economic discontent during a time of economic growth coming out of a deep recession. We ran a campaign only in the final year to show how much things had turned around and were now headed on the right track. Our train to the convention was named "The Right Track Express." But this campaign had to wait for the other elements to fall into place -- getting the budget in order and showing a series of substantial accomplishments in welfare reform, immigration reform, opening up new markets and taking big steps to protect our environment.
In fact we spent most of our time looking for new things the president could do by executive order as well, out there every day with a new presidential announcement. But perhaps most importantly, step-by-step we built a policy agenda for the second term as big and as future-oriented as the ideas he ran on and that got him elected in 1992. The idea was that people should see as much promise for America in the second term as the voters saw in the first, earning it the label of "Bridge to the 21st Century."
The Republican field doesn't look so challenging right now. Neither did the Democratic field look great in 1991. To be in a secure place for re-election, President Obama has some tasks ahead of him that will give him the edge when their field is narrowed -- namely take over leadership of the budget fight to turn it into a win for him and fiscal sanity; get out to the country as president, not a political candidate; keep building new ideas to change the country in every area from education and environment to the Internet; clarify America's role in a fast-changing world and slowly turn around the perceptions of despair that are setting in with large segments of the population.
If in the next year America sees a strong president firmly leading the country to solve its big problems and "winning the future," it won't matter who the Republican opponent is, he will win. And if they don't see that, a billion dollars or more won't stop the tide.