Obama's plan to win 2012 presidential election takes shape

President Obama's State of the Union, along with the speeches that have followed, point to a blend of Kennedy vision and Reagan optimism to 'win the future' and fend off GOP challengers in the 2012 presidential election.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Obama spoke to the media in the White House Feb. 1 after televised remarks by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s turmoil has taken the spotlight off his ‘Startup America’ pro-business campaign.

After a State of the Union message long on soaring rhetoric and short on specifics, President Obama now has to deliver the goods. The unemployment rate has to keep heading downward or he can probably forget about a second term, analysts from both parties agree.

But there's a long way to go between now and the 2012 presidential election, and there's more to the campaign than the monthly jobs report. Already, the larger outline of competing narratives is coming into view.

For Mr. Obama, the themes are competitiveness and entrepreneurship, with a Kennedyesque focus on technology blended with Reaganesque optimism. Government is a partner of the private sector, not an impediment to it, Obama asserts.

For the Republicans, the counter­narrative centers on getting government out of the way, and exercising fiscal responsibility as the path to recovery.

"We hold to a couple of simple convictions: Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first," Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin said in his GOP response to the State of the Union message.

The Republican Party's image with the American public has improved of late. It is more favorable (47 percent) than unfavorable (43 percent) for the first time since 2005, according to a Gallup poll taken before the State of the Union message.

Though Obama didn't get a boost in public opinion from the address, his Gallup job approval rating is holding steady at around 50 percent, not a bad place to be at the start of a reelection cycle. But the renewed battle over health-care reform and the looming budget showdown – plus events in Egypt – are fast burying the memories of bipartisanship during the lame-duck Congress and Obama's well-received speech in Tucson, Ariz. The president's long-term goal of "winning the future" could easily get bogged down in the skirmishes of the day.

As a starting point, though, focusing on making the United States more competitive with some of the new economic superpowers is a smart move, says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University.

"It puts Obama on the side of business and economic growth, and it makes Republicans look as if they don't really have a long-term vision other than cuts," says Professor Zelizer. "That said, Obama still has a tough sell. As compelling as that story is, he still has very high short-term unemployment numbers, which are of much more concern to Americans."

Indeed, Obama's State of the Union message barely touched on the immediate issue of how to get 14 million jobless Americans back to work, not to mention the underemployed and discouraged workers who aren't represented in the 9 percent unemployment rate.

Obama's State of the Union idea of "out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building" the rest of the world is "interesting rhetoric," says Republican pollster David Winston. "But a speech won't be enough. It will have to be, 'OK, what are you actually going to do...?' Ultimately, he's got a monthly report card: jobs. Either that changes or it doesn't."

Since the State of the Union, Obama has kept the rhetorical drumbeat going on innovation and investment in infrastructure. Last week, he traveled to Wisconsin to highlight a high-efficiency lighting company and to Pennsylvania to announce an initiative to improve the energy efficiency of commercial buildings across the country.

On Thursday, he travels to Marquette, Mich., to promote his “national wireless initiative,” which aims to extend wireless coverage to 98 percent of the US population.

Obama has also kept up his outreach to the business community, delivering a highly anticipated speech Monday to the US Chamber of Commerce in which he implored members to hire and invest.

Last week, the White House held events focused on innovation and entrepreneurship, including a new “Startup America” initiative aimed at encouraging the private sector to invest in job-creating startup businesses. A companion initiative, the “Startup America Partnership,” features entrepreneurs – led by Steve Case, cofounder of AOL, and Carl Schramm of the Kauffman Foundation – who will aim to mobilize private-sector investment in startups.

If nothing else, the outlines of Obama's reelection pitch are coming into view. "Winning the future" is, in some ways, a more focused version of "hope and change," but with a cast toward the political center in its emphasis on entrepreneurship.

George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, sees multiple goals in Obama's new competitiveness narrative. First, it's a way to split the Republican business community off from the hard right, especially the tea party, Professor Lakoff wrote in The Huffington Post.

"Most business leaders want real economics, not ideological economics," says Lakoff, who has advised Democrats on how to frame issues. "And it is hard to pin the 'socialist' label on a business-oriented president."

Obama's competitiveness pitch could also attract what Lakoff calls "biconceptuals," people who are conservative on some issues (most often economics) but progressive on others (social issues). This slice of the electorate, 15 to 20 percent, is crucial to Obama's reelection prospects.

Lakoff suggests that Obama implicitly declared economic war in his State of the Union message by asking for a long-term economic mobilization. "So when conservatives say, 'No, investment just means spending,' his narrative makes them unpatriotic," he writes. "In a war, we have to all work together. And he is the commander in chief. He gets the moral authority."

Obama rejected a campaign "frame" to his State of the Union message, saying that "at stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election."

But by bringing it up, he telegraphed just that: an opening bid at reelection. "At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else," Obama said. "It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but the light to the world."

Obama has disappointed deficit hawks by not addressing in any comprehensive way the nation's unsustainable fiscal path, leaving that terrain to the Republicans.

Is Obama positioning the GOP as the party of budget cuts and "eat your spinach" while he's Mr. Optimism?

"He's trying," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

But ultimately, Mr. Ayres says, Obama "has very little credibility at the moment with independents on the whole issue of fiscal responsibility."

Whether that will be a critical voting issue come November 2012 is unclear. A recent Gallup poll found 84 percent of Americans view the federal budget deficit as "extremely" or "very" important, behind only the economy and unemployment in a list of domestic and foreign issues.

But another Gallup poll taken around the same time found majority opposition to cuts in spending in all areas except foreign aid. On one of the biggest drivers of the fiscal imbalance, Medicare, 38 percent favored a cut in spending versus 61 percent opposed.

"Americans don't care about the economic arguments" behind the fiscal imbalance, says Zelizer. "But symbolically it's powerful. A balanced budget is a symbol in the US of a government that's in control – in control of spending and its policies."

For Republicans, crafting a campaign narrative against Obama will be easier once the party has a presidential nominee, more than a year away. The dueling responses to the State of the Union message – the official GOP reply from Congressman Ryan and the separate tea party response from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota – created an embarrassing split-screen effect.

But the election will be, foremost, a referendum on Obama, and so having a compelling story to tell – one of economic recovery, he hopes – matters more for him than his opponent.

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