The new battler in the White House who takes on his opponents and argues for what he’d actually like to get done is creating a lot of static in the world of commentary. The most popular assumption is that President Obama is primarily involved in an operation to shore up his base — liberals, young people, African Americans and Latinos disappointed that he hasn’t taken on Republicans or pushed for more ambitious, progressive measures.
He certainly does need to get the base fired up, because to win in 2012 he needs a high turnout from all those groups. But my colleague Greg Sargent is right in an important blog post noting that centrist voters and independents are looking for something they haven’t seen until recently from Obama: strength and leadership. The new strategy may appeal to the base, but it’s absolutely vital to restoring the president’s image for toughness and conviction. (And kudos to Greg for underscoring — using Pew surveys, Mike Tomasky’s column and Tomasky’s helpful chat with pollster Guy Molyneux — that independents are not one big, monolithic group but a collection of very different kinds of voters.)
Many of us have been arguing for a long time that the Obama who constantly reached across the aisle was doing himself damage with such voters — and, in the process, hurting his image around the world. In early August, I quoted a prominent British politician who understood Obama’s strategy of accommodation but expressed worry that Obama “seems to be a passive figure at a time when the world needs a leader.” My concern then was whether “all the concessions and maneuvering undercut a president’s most important asset: an earned image of strength rooted in principle.”
Again: this is not about ideology. Centrist voters typically care as much about the personal attributes of leaders as they do their stands on this or that issue. (That’s one reason they are not ideologues.) The New Obama — who in some ways is simply the Old Obama reincarnated — is far more likely to inspire confidence than Obama the deal-maker who seemed ready to let conservative Republicans in Congress get what they wanted.
There is also this: If Obama is not making the case for what he wants to do and what he believes, no one else will do it for him. Making arguments is one of the most important things a president does, as both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton understood. Obama, who used to be good at doing just that, seems to have taken up the task again.
Update (1:20 p.m.): In an interesting interview in New York magazine, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg also takes on the myth of the independent voter. “Independents are a hodgepodge; it doesn’t work to look at them as having any common worldview,” Greenberg says. “There are affluent suburban voters who are fiscally conservative and culturally liberal; there are seniors, who are more populist than the population as a whole; and there are a high number of white, blue-collar voters who are deeply angry and have been explosive in election after election.”