One year from now, assuming we don’t suffer another hanging chad crisis, we’ll know the tally of the ’12 presidential election. There’s no point trying to predict it, because there are way too many variables – most notably, the volatile public mood and the fact that all the major players are burdened with baggage.Starting with President Obama.
Veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart has been circulating a “One Year Out” memo. It came my way the other day. Hart sifted the numbers from the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll (a bipartisan survey that he conducts with Republican pollster Bill McInturff), and pondered the comments that he heard while querying a focus group of voters in southern Ohio (specifically, Hamilton County, which went Democratic in 2008 for the first time since 1964). His conclusion: Swing voters still can’t get a bead on what Obama truly believes.The good news for Obama is that he starts the ’12 campaign with an impervious core of support; in Hart’s words, “nobody has a more solid 44 percent base than he does. This may sound inconsequential, but this is a major asset…His base will be invaluable.” But beyond the base, things get dicey. And the main qualms have nothing to do with ideology, per se. According to Hart, “The challenge is not that people are put off by him, but that they are not certain who he is…He is everyone and no one.”Swing voters aren’t sure how they should perceive Obama; his image lacks “clarity.” By contrast, Hart says, these voters had a much clearer take on Ronald Reagan at the three-year mark (“strength and optimism”); the same was true for Bill Clinton (“compassion and determination”), and George W. Bush (“conviction”).Judging by the remarks that Hart garnered in Ohio, Obama comes across as tentative guy with a leadership deficit. Swing voters (and this should not be a surprise) don’t typically think in terms of “liberal” or “conservative.” They simply want a leader to lead the way, and they get exasperated when it doesn’t happen. At one point, Hart asked them, “What one thing do you want Obama to know? What would you tell him?” A sampling of replies:”Be bold.” Exude “bravery.””I think he needs to be a lot stronger,” to the point of being “mean.””‘I don’t want you to be nice…if you believe in something, you need to fight for it and stop giving in.””He’s playing everything too safe. He’s not taking chances.”Hart’s memo doesn’t detail the reasons why swing voters perceive Obama so skeptically, but at this point they’re obvious. For instance, he has long oscillated between trying to please the Wall Streeters, and the average citizens who have been screwed by the Wall Streeters. He has inveighed against the Bush tax cuts for the rich, then caved to extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich. He has oscillated between pleasing the business community (which believes that anti-pollution rules hurt job creation), and the environmentalists (who are still furious about his recent backtrack on ozone). Granted, Obama took office in the teeth of a near-Depression that has hindered his room to maneuver – in the words of ex-Clinton adviser and think tank scholar Bill Galston, Obama has tried to juggle “the agenda of choice on which he had waged his campaign, and the agenda of necessity forced upon him by events” – but swing voters typically focus on results. Obama has been light on results, which in turn feeds the perception that he lacks the tools of leadership.The upshot is that swing voters respect a president who leads by conviction – even if they don’t necessarily agree with those convictions. In Hart’s view, Obama’s big challenge between now and next November is to sharpen his image, to communicate core beliefs and make it clear that he will stand by those beliefs. Hart says that voters are still “looking to figure out who is on their side,” and even though the Republicans are not a slam dunk to fill the vacuum – focus group voters “perceive Mitt Romney as Park Avenue or Wall Street” – Obama is a very long way from closing the sale.——-Meanwhile, Obama can only hope that the Republicans would be foolish enough to nominate Newt Gingrich. If voters are indeed in a populist frame of mind, and “looking to figure out who is on their side,” Newt is a bad fit for Man of The People. This guy has more baggage than the cargo hold of a 747.And the baggage is mounting by the day. His current boomlet could prove to be shorter than the life span of your average fruit fly.Since I wrote here Tuesday about his default ascent in the Republican race, we have learned that the purported “outsider” is actually a lavishly-compensated insider, having collected nearly $2 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage giant that conservatives love to hate. What’s fascinating is the way Newt has tried to work both sides of the street. First he pockets the Freddie Mac money, between 1999 and 2008, and then he goes out on the stump and slams Freddie Mac for its role in the housing crisis – while demanding that Democrats give back any campaign donations they received from Freddie Mac. The next edition of Webster’s Dictionary should put a sketch of Newt’s face next to the definition of hypocrite.Which brings us to the quote of the week. In a recent Republican debate, Newt insisted that Freddie Mac had hired him merely to solicit his advice “as an historian.” I suggested at the time that never before has America seen such a well-paid historian, but, all kidding aside, let’s cede the final word on this matter to a former Freddie Mac official, quoted yesterday in the New York Times:”Freddie wasn’t spending $25,000 to $35,000 a month for years to have somebody give them history lessons on what would have happened in 1945 if Japan had won.”——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1