Fretful Democrats worry that President Obama’s lackluster performance in last week’s debate could turn the tide toward a victory by Mitt Romney. Poll numbers show that the gap between the two has narrowed, though as of Monday, Obama still held an edge nationally and in the battleground states.
Obama’s top aides reportedly were mapping a revised strategy even before the debate last Wednesday was over. They saw that Romney had used the debate to steal the initiative, refashioning himself into the moderate that he had been concealing throughout the primary season.
Nervous Democrats might want to remind themselves that the case for Obama remains solid, even if the impression created on one night of television served to undermine it. Here are the fundamental building blocks of Obama’s appeal to the voters.
One, the economy is rebounding. The jobs growth and lower unemployment announced on Friday was confirmation that things are headed in the right direction. Obama doesn’t want to appear out of touch with the anguish of unemployed workers, nor does he want to mire his campaign in gloom. His message can legitimately be cast in a positive light: We are on our way back.
Two, the Great Recession was the legacy of a Republican administration. Obama is not running against George W. Bush, except in a sense he is, and voters know it. One of Obama’s mantras during the campaign has been that we cannot return to the failed policies of the past. The voters tend to agree.
Three, social issues still matter, and on most of them the majority of voters line up with Obama. The Republican platform embodies a harsh anti-woman, anti-gay point of view that was not touched on during the debate, which was focused on the economy. Obama doesn’t want to be strident or divisive on these issues, but when voters are reminded of the extreme right-wing tilt of Republican positions, they will lean toward Obama.
Four, Obama has provided steady leadership in foreign policy, navigating the troubled waters of the Middle East capably, if not flawlessly. He has aggressively prosecuted the battle against terrorism, and efforts to portray him as weak can be answered with a reminder of the death of Osama bin Laden.
Five, Obama’s willingness to make tough decisions has helped lift us out of the recession. There was the auto industry bailout, and there have been billions in investment in green technology. Romney tried to portray those investments as a negative. Obama can remind him of the thousands of jobs that have been created as a result.
Six, health care reform is affecting people’s lives for the better.
Seven, Romney is a chameleon who has been on both sides of most major issues. Romney’s strong performance in the debate featured strong assertions that contradicted previous Romney positions. There is much grist for Obama to exploit by reminding voters of Romney’s multiple flip-flops.
These fundamentals suggest that, one off night notwithstanding, Obama is in a strong position. His position is strengthened by the demographics of the campaign. Obama has strong appeal to numerous important groups: Hispanics, African-Americans, women, young people. These add up to a sizable chunk of the American population.
It appears that there remains a narrow slice of the electorate that can be swayed either way. Otherwise, poll numbers following the debate would not have reflected a change. The question that Democrats are asking is whether the low point that Obama reached following last week’s debate represents a floor or whether he can continue to sink. The demographics and the strong appeal of his case suggest he is unlikely to sink much lower, but much will depend on the next three debates (including the vice presidential debate this Thursday). Voters like to have confidence in their president, and it will be up to Obama to restore confidence that he is on top of the issues and can stand up strongly against a challenger deploying misrepresentations and distortions.
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