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William Galston Headshot

The President's Only Chance for 2012

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In a series of pieces during the past two weeks (see here, here, and here), I've laid out the evidence for two propositions: The president's economic record will be at the heart of the 2012 election, and he cannot win without focusing on the heartland -- the swing states stretching from Pennsylvania to Iowa.

The case for the first proposition goes as follows:

To an extent that we haven't seen since 1992 (and maybe not even then), the 2012 election will focus on a single issue: economic growth and job creation.

For that reason above all, President Obama will be waging an uphill battle for reelection, because the American people are giving his management of the economy very low grades. (Recent CBS/NYT surveys have placed approval of his performance on the economy and job creation at below 40 percent.)

While for understandable reasons the president's campaign team wants to turn the election into a choice between two futures, the odds of success for that strategy seem low. Most political scientists who have studied the question conclude that when there's an incumbent in the race, the principal issue is that candidate's job performance. (That's why Reagan's "Are you better off..." was such a killer question against Carter in 1980.)

President Obama, therefore, has no choice but to address the economic question head-on, which will require him to offer a much more persuasive defense of his record than he has up to now.

The case for my second proposition -- the Heartland Strategy -- is this:

The president's team hopes to recreate the "new majority" strategy that expanded the playing field and led to victories in states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada in 2008 and perhaps Arizona and Georgia as well in 2012. This does not seem realistic, however: while the president's support among African Americans remains strong, it has dropped sharply among Hispanics disappointed by what they see as his failure to push for comprehensive immigration reform and his administration's aggressive deportation strategy. And every survey and focus group points to diminished enthusiasm among the young adults whose relentless networking on Obama's behalf contributed significantly to his historic victory.

To make matters worse, the president's numbers in Florida are dismal, he trails likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 10 points in New Hampshire, and he has no chance of repeating his 2008 miracle victory in Indiana.

These facts underscore the crucial importance of the heartland states -- especially Ohio and Pennsylvania. As a matter of history and simple arithmetic, is very unlikely that President Obama can be reelected without carrying them both.

Although Pennsylvania is usually 3 to 4 points more Democratic than Ohio, the evidence suggests that Obama is surprisingly weak there and needs to do some real work to shore up his standing in a state that Democrats often regard as being in the bag.

As for Ohio, the last Democrat to take the White house without winning that state was John Kennedy, who did it with electoral votes from Texas and other southern states that Obama will not receive. (The last Republican to win the presidency without Ohio? There hasn't been one since the founding of the party in the 1850s.)

Ohio is pivotal, election after election, because it is a demographic and political microcosm of the country. If a presidential candidate can win a majority there, he or she can almost certainly do so in the nation as well. And that's why both parties should pay close attention to the results of last week's election, in which the Ohio electorate overwhelmingly rejected both Gov. Kasich's assault on public sector unions and the individual mandate at the heart of President Obama's health reform law.

If these two core propositions are correct -- if the 2012 election will be about Obama's economic stewardship and will be won or lost in the heartland -- then the key question is this: How can the president defend his economic record in a region much of which has not enjoyed robust growth for quite some time?

Let's look at some basics:

2011-11-16-Screenshot20111116at4.55.33PM.png

It's hard to imagine Obama losing Illinois or winning Indiana in 2012. That leaves six key heartland states. Note what they have in common: despite widely varying rates of unemployment, none of them has experienced a rapid decline in that rate over the past year. Because there's no sense of dynamism in the region, hope and confidence in the future are at a low ebb. That's the reality the president must speak to, there and elsewhere.

How can Obama recast the economic discussion? Here's my best shot:

First, he must acknowledge Americans' sense of being stuck and then explain why recovery from this downturn has been so painfully slow -- in particular, the impact of the financial collapse and our excessive debt burden, private as well as public.

Second, he must display some humility and acknowledge that he didn't get everything right. It was a mistake not to underscore the difficulty of our circumstances right from the start. It was a mistake to predict that unemployment would peak at 8 percent if his stimulus bill were enacted. While it was necessary to save the big financial institutions from a total meltdown, it was a mistake to ask so little from them institutions in return. And it was a mistake to act so timidly in the face of a housing and mortgage crisis that has cost the middle class many trillions of dollars in lost wealth.

Third, he should emphasize what most Americans believe: without the steps his administration took at the depth of the crisis, there might well have been a second Great Depression. Sure, "It could have been much worse" isn't much of a bumper sticker, but it's a place to start, and it has the merit of being true.

Fourth, what he has done so far has not only halted the decline but has yielded more than twenty consecutive months of growth in private sector jobs -- progress that would be more noticeable if states and localities hadn't been shedding so many employees in response to the squeeze on their budgets.

Fifth, while most Americans didn't like it when his administration intervened to save GM and Chrysler, it was the right thing to do, not only for auto workers, but for much of the heartland's economy as well. Allowing these two firms to dissolve would have broken the back of regions already struggling with double-digit unemployment. Leadership means doing what's necessary and right, even when it's unpopular.

Sixth, we now have the opportunity to build on the foundation laid during this painful period in our history. Obama can emphasize steps such as: a bold new response to housing foreclosures and underwater mortgages; an infrastructure bank that mobilizes both domestic and foreign capital to put Americans back to work on projects that will strengthen our economy; and a tougher stance vis-à-vis Chinese policies that have taken their toll on American workers and firms. And yes, we need to come together around fundamental spending and tax reform that can stabilize our fiscal future without further undermining the hard-pressed middle class.

That's the guts of the affirmative case Obama can make. (No doubt he believes he's already doing it, but he hasn't been frank, comprehensive, and persistent enough to break through.) And if he does make it relentlessly until next Labor Day, he can then pivot and ask, What's the alternative? What is my opponent offering? If you think that an agenda of deregulation for big polluters, more tax breaks for the wealthy, and a laissez-faire policy that allows the housing sector to "hit bottom" is the way to jump start job creation, the by all means vote for him. If you don't, you have a chance to continue moving down a path that can move us from the shadows of stagnation to the sunlight of opportunity and to build a new economy in which all Americans -- not just a favored few -- enjoy the fruits of growth.

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