Panicked over what many see as a flawed economic message that is driving away middle class and independent voters, a growing chorus of once-confident Democrats now fear President Barack Obama could lose the November election.
The hand-wringing reflects real worries among Democrats about Obama's ability to beat Republican rival Mitt Romney, who has so far proven to be a stronger candidate than many expected. But it's also a political strategy aimed at rallying major donors who have either been turned off or are simply complacent.
- The fears came into sharp focus on Tuesday when two major Democratic pollsters for Democracy Corps wrote a bleak analysis that suggested Obama's message didn't appeal to the middle class because it wasn't "forward-looking" enough.
- Former Clinton adviser James Carville said on Wednesday that he's very worried that Obama's message is being interpreted by many voters as the economy is doing just fine. It isn't, and the message is convincing many the president isn't feeling their pain.
- A poll released overnight Tuesday by Reuters/Ipsos found that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has closed to within a single point of Obama, among registered voters — 45 percent to 44 percent. Obama led by seven points a month ago.
- Last weekend's news cycle was almost entirely consumed by President Obama's comments on Friday that the private sector of the economy was "doing fine." Those remarks sent the Obama team to battle stations until late Monday.
- Obama's approval rating has slipped to 47 percent, its lowest level since January, an Ipsos poll found. The proportion of voters saying that the U.S. was on the wrong track rose six points to 63 percent.
Interviews with a dozen Democratic strategists across the country show an increased sense of urgency among Obama backers, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.
It follows a troubling two weeks for the president, including a dismal report on the nation's unemployment picture, a Democratic defeat in the Wisconsin governor recall election and an impressive fundraising month for Romney and Republicans.
Veteran political reporter Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post reported that some Democratic veterans are wondering whether the reelection campaign, run by the same tight-knit group that led it four years ago, is equipped for what lies ahead.
"The bad thing is, there is no new thinking in that circle," one longtime operative in Democratic presidential campaigns told Tumulty.
Obama is set to deliver a major campaign speech Thursday in Cleveland in which he will try to frame the election as a choice between two economic visions — one that protects the middle class and another that takes the country back to the failed policies of the past, campaign officials said.
"Now all the stories are about the flawed Obama team and strategy, which is ridiculous," said Mark McKinnon, who was a top campaign strategist for George W. Bush. "They are not any more or less smart than they were four years ago. The dynamics are just different. This time, the wind is in their face instead of at their back."
Carville has bluntly and loudly told a number of reporters that he is “worried” that President Barack Obama’s message about an improving economy could be turning off voters.
“I’m worried that when the White House or the campaign talks about the progress that’s being made, people take that as a signal that they think that things are fine and people don’t feel they ought to believe that,” the Democratic strategist said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Obama needs to clarify his rhetoric if he wins a second term, Carville noted. He said that the American people “want to be reassured of him that he understands the depth of the problem and that he has a plan to deal with the deterioration of the middle class.”
Politico and other political websites pointed out that Carville's latest remarks touch on similar concerns raised in a research document co-written with pollsters Stan Greenberg and Erica Seifert for Democracy Corps.
On Tuesday the group warned that the Democratic Party could face an “impossible headwind in November” unless it adopts a more forward-looking economic message that focuses on the middle class, and called on the president to start spreading his message with “minimal discussion of the recovery and jobs created and maximal empathy for the challenges people face.”
“These voters are not convinced that we are headed in the right direction,” they wrote. “They are living in a new economy — and there is no conceivable recovery in the year ahead that will change the view of the new state of the country.”
The document continued, “They actually have a very realistic view of the long road back and the struggles of the middle class — and the current narrative about progress just misses the opportunity to connect and point forward. While we hear some optimism, this is framed mostly by the sense that this has to be rock bottom.”
As the Christian Science Monitor put it, "top Democrats are essentially telling Obama to stop trying to defend his record on the economy, because voters aren't buying it. As they put it: '[Voters] know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle — and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool's errand.'"
"We've all got to get in the same boat and start paddling in the same direction, or we're going to have some problems," said Debbie Dingell, a Democratic National Committee member and the wife of Michigan Rep. John Dingell.
"We can't take this for granted," said Peter Burling, a DNC member from New Hampshire. "I intend to be running scared from now until November."
These worries have also prompted some second-guessing of an Obama campaign operation once perceived as run by disciplined message specialists.
Former Democratic Party Chairman Don Fowler faulted the Obama camp for not laying more blame on Republicans for the slow economic recovery.
"The Obama campaign should make it clear whose fundamental fault the economic problems are, and they've chosen not to do that," he said, echoing an argument made by other Democrats. "Not doing that, they forfeit an argument, a strategy, a technique toward making the Republicans bear responsibility for these problems."
Some Democrats hope the deepening concern among some party faithful could lead to an increase in fundraising.
The mighty Obama and DNC fundraising operation fell behind Romney and Republicans in May, with the GOP team raising $76 million compared to the $60 million haul for the president and Democrats. And the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action has lagged far behind Republican-leaning outside groups, in part because of what senior strategist Bill Burton said was a sense of complacency among Democratic donors.
"Democrats have to know that the president is up against a well-financed opponent in a tough political environment," said Burton, a former White House aide. "If everyone doesn't join the fight, he could be defeated."
The Obama campaign itself has also been sounding the alarm.
"If there's anyone still out there acting like we have this thing in the bag, do me a favor and tell them they're dead wrong," Ann Marie Habershaw, the campaign's chief operating officer, wrote in a blog post last week.
Campaign manager Jim Messina warned that GOP success in the Wisconsin recall, aided by independent group spending, confirmed that "all the outside money that's poured into elections this cycle can and will change their outcome. And it's exactly what could happen on the national stage unless we can close the gap between special interests and ordinary people."
In 2004, it was the Democrats who had the big money operation on their side. Groups like America Coming Together and the Media Fund raised about $200 million to help John Kerry's presidential campaign with grass-roots organizing and advertising. But the donors who helped that effort — financier George Soros, film producer and donor to liberal causes Steve Bing and billionaire Peter Lewis — have vastly reduced their political participation or stayed away all together this time.
Democratic operatives say the long and combative Republican primary left some in their own party overconfident. Obama supporters expected Romney to emerge from the GOP contest bruised by attacks from his party and pigeonholed by his attempts to placate conservatives by shifting to the right on everything from immigration to foreign policy.
But five months from Election Day, several national polls show Obama and Romney locked in a tight race, as voters vent their frustrations over the nation's economic woes. May figures showed that employers created a meager 69,000 jobs and the jobless rate ticked up to 8.2 percent. And this week, the Federal Reserve released data showing that median family net worth shrank in 2010 to levels not seen since 1992 after adjusting for inflation.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said the president's team "always anticipated this would be a close and competitive election."
But some strategists worry that time is running short. While many Democrats believe party loyalists will get more engaged as the election draws closer, other operatives say the terms of the election will be set over the next two months.
"This can't wait until September," said Steve Rosenthal, president of the Organizing Group, a Democratic-leaning consulting firm.
Rosenthal issued his own warning on Obama's re-election prospects in an online column headlined "President Obama Can Lose: Now is the Time for Democratic Donors to Step Up in a Big Way."
In an interview Wednesday, Rosenthal said Obama's populist State of the Union address and Romney's initial troubles securing the Republican nomination created a false sense of euphoria among Democrats. But he said that sentiment ignored the fact that the country is still evenly divided, that the president does not hold a lead in all battleground states and that Obama this time does not have the 2-1 edge in money that he had over John McCain in 2008.
"They have such a huge financial advantage and with the economy teetering, it's frightening," Rosenthal said of Republicans. "I hate to say it comes down to money, but it does."
Don Peebles, a New York-based real estate developer and Obama fundraiser, said that while Democratic complacency has been hard to shake this cycle, he expects more urgency this summer.
"There's definitely a sense among the financial supporters of the president that we need to get more engaged and redouble our efforts to make sure that he has the resources he needs," Peebles said.
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