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Obama the Underdog

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Ten of twelve states that most polls consider to be in play this year are states that Obama carried in 2008. Those would be Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and New Hampshire. The two toss-ups that McCain won are Missouri and Arizona. So Obama needs to run most of the table in order to win reelection.

With the economic recovery plainly slowing, Obama is barely running even with Mitt Romney, a candidate neither beloved by the Republican base nor trusted by most women voters, and a politician given to foot-in-mouth disease whenever he is off script. As "Michael Dukakis" (as played by Jon Lovitz) famously said on Saturday Night Live in 1988 of George H.W. Bush's inept campaign, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." But lose he did, and Obama could lose to a candidate as inept as Romney.

Obama's problems run deeper than the soft recovery. To understand why, it's helpful to take a close look at something he did right -- his deft policy of suspending deportations of undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children.

This policy shift, and his recent speech to the National Association of Latin Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), were pitch-perfect.

In terms of campaign tactics, Obama's move is a prime example of what's known as exploiting a wedge issue -- one that divides the opposition party and exposes its vulnerabilities. Most voters view the Republican position on deporting young people who grew up here and consider themselves Americans to be harsh and stupid. Obama's move flummoxed the Republican Party into a week of rare silence, left Romney to speak gibberish to the NALEO meeting, and intensified support for Obama among Latinos without an offsetting backlash among Anglos.

Obama's reluctant and belated acceptance of same-sex marriage accomplished something similar. Here public opinion remains closely divided, but is unmistakably moving in the direction of greater tolerance, especially among independent voters. Once again, the Republican capture by the hard right is revealed, and Romney is put in a usefully awkward position.

The question, however, is why Obama waited so long, and why he doesn't pursue other areas where the Republican position is far to the right of public opinion. The answer seems to be a combination of Obama's own innate caution, and the obsessively tactical, "test-everything" orientation of his campaign strategists.

Key areas where Obama might have smoked out the unpopularity of the Republican position, but didn't quite manage to, are the Republican attacks on Social Security and Medicare, the economic insanity of pursing budget balance in a lingering economic slump, and the continuing recklessness of Wall Street.

Instead, the Obama White House lent credence to the budget-balance crusade by appointing the Bowles-Simpson Commission and cooperating with various budget-balance summits organized by the Peterson Foundation. At various points in budget negotiations, facing Republican blackmail, the administration has been prepared to accept cuts in Social Security and Medicare in order to be able to proclaim a bipartisan success. Obama's own ten-year budget proposes deficit reductions of $4.4 trillion dollars, undermining the Administration's capacity to champion jobs and recovery and creating a self-imposed fiscal straitjacket.

Taken together, these policies leave the impression that the main difference between Obama's view of the economy and the budget and the slash-and-burn Republican budgets is one of degree. His posture makes it too easy for the media to portray each latest budget crisis as the result of the failure of the two parties to bargain in good faith, rather than the reality of Republican extremism and obstruction.

A skilled Democratic president would be making clear that budget cuts will not produce a recovery, that Social Security has nothing to do with the serial budget deadlocks contrived by Republicans, and that there are fundamental philosophical differences between the parties on these issues. On Social Security and Medicare, most voters are much closer to the Democratic position, if the President would only more clearly embrace it.

As Wall Street lobbying continues gutting the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, and episodes such as the theft of investor funds by Jon Corzine's MF Global and the $2 billion in trading losses on credit default swaps by JPMorgan Chase keep reminding us why tough regulation of finance is necessary, Obama maintains a prudent silence. Except for occasional forays such as his embrace of safe symbolic initiatives such as a "Volcker Rule" on proprietary trading and a "Buffett Rule" on taxation of the very rich, Obama has failed to lay the Wall Street scandals that crashed the economy at the door of the Republicans. His weak initiatives on mortgage relief have been protective of bankers at the expense of the victims of the crash.

As a result, ordinary voters blame both parties for the financial collapse, and Obama as the incumbent president in a weak economy pays the political price. Voters are left to conclude that both his administration and his campaign financing are too cozy with Wall Street, and that neither party represents the common people.

Today's Republican Party is a target-rich environment. The policy shift on deportation suggests the power of a president to reframe an issue at the expense of the opposition party. If Obama wants to survive, it's time for him to start doing more of the same on the economy.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.

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