In June, weeks before the stock market tanked and the nation got downgraded, White House chief of staff Bill Daley arranged a secret retreat for his senior team at Fort McNair, a leafy 18th century Army base near the southern tip of the District of Columbia. Historian Michael Beschloss went along as a guest speaker to help answer the one question on everyone's mind: How does a U.S. President win re-election with the country suffering unacceptably high rates of unemployment?
The historian's lecture provided a lift for Barack Obama's team. No iron law in politics is ever 100% accurate, Beschloss told the group. Two Presidents in the past century Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 won re-election amid substantial economic suffering. Both used the same two-part strategy: FDR and Reagan argued that the country, though in pain, was improving and that their opponents, anchored in past failures, would make things worse.
Beschloss did not intend to give political advice. But that is just how his words were received. The President's aides, all but resigned to unemployment above 8% on Election Day, now see in Roosevelt and Reagan a plausible path to victory. They intend to make sure voters believe a year from now that their fortunes are improving, and they plan to persuade the American people that a Republican in the White House would be a step backward.
It's not an ideal strategy for Obama, but it may be the only one available to him. The no-drama Commander in Chief, with his nearly visceral distaste for the phony theatrics of partisan warfare, will have to step out of his comfort zone. Genteel, bipartisan golf games won't do the trick, nor will prime-time presidential paeans to the art of compromise. White House aides say the President will go on offense in the coming weeks, rolling out a new set of economic-stimulus proposals in a speech after Labor Day. After months of focusing on deficit reduction and dismissing economic hurdles as "bumps on the road to recovery," Obama will pivot to a likely push for more payroll-tax cuts, infrastructure spending and breaks for small business to encourage hiring. He hoped to make the announcement on Sept. 7, at the very moment the GOP candidates planned to start a presidential-candidate debate in California. Obama advisers say all the proposals will be paid for with offsets elsewhere in the budget. Just don't expect anyone in the White House to call it a stimulus.
Meanwhile, after casting himself as the only reasonable man in an unreasonable town, Obama will try to divert the public's frustration with Washington toward his main enemy, the GOP. "If people insist on playing ideological politics, catering to their base, putting their party politics ahead of the country, we are going to make them pay for that," says David Plouffe, Obama's top message strategist at the White House. "Because the American people can't abide that kind of behavior in this economic situation. They have had it up to here."
That frustration is shared even by the President's core supporters. For months, concern has been growing among Democratic allies outside the White House as Obama's approval ratings have plunged to the high 30s and a sluggish recovery has threatened to stall out altogether. They grimaced when the President became entangled in a dysfunctional legislative fight about the debt limit. Among some party elders, confidence in Daley and Plouffe, who have focused squarely on wooing independent voters, has also sagged. Partly as a result, the mood inside the White House has grown increasingly defensive in recent weeks, with officials fending off second-guessing from their allies over whether the harm of the past two months could have been avoided and whether they were devising an effective strategy for climbing out of the hole. White House aides dismiss their critics as handwringers. "The President had to establish his spending-cut bona fides," says a senior Obama aide, explaining the summer strategy on deficit reduction. "We have put ourselves in a position so we can fight this election about choices."
The Leadership Question
The new strategy coming so close to the election is certainly a departure from the old. For months, Obama's aides have banked on the positive personal qualities that voters still ascribe to the President as a hidden weapon in the coming campaign against a relatively unknown Republican challenger. To this day, healthy majorities of Americans describe Obama as someone who is "trustworthy" and "well informed" and "cares about people like me." In the heat of a campaign, White House aides believe, his personal credibility will help close the sale with independent voters.
But as the debt-limit debacle unfolded, other key indicators began to erode. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that Obama's reputation for being "able to get things done" fell sharply, with only 44% of Americans ascribing that quality to him, a 10-point drop from the start of 2011. His ratings as a "strong leader" cratered as well just four months after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Democratic strategists worry that voters will conclude, If Obama doesn't fight for himself, how will he fight for me?