President Obama’s campaign is developing an aggressive new program to expand support from ethnic minority groups and other traditional Democratic voters as his team studies an increasingly narrow path to victory in next year’s reelection effort.
The program, called “Operation Vote,” underscores how the tide has turned for Obama, whose 2008 brand was built on calls to unite “red and blue America.” Then, he presented himself as a politician who could transcend traditional partisan divisions, and many white centrists were drawn to the coalition that helped elect the country’s first black president.
Today, the political realities of a sputtering economy, a more polarized Washington and fast-sinking presidential job approval ratings, particularly among white independents, are forcing the Obama campaign to adjust its tactics.
Operation Vote will function as a large, centralized department in the Chicago campaign office for reaching ethnic, religious and other voter groups. It will coordinate recruitment of an ethnic volunteer base and push out targeted messages online and through the media to groups such as blacks, Hispanics, Jews, women, seniors, young people, gays and Asian Americans.
The campaign this month hired a longtime Jewish political activist as a point person for that community, the first of many such hirings to come this fall as staffers are brought on from each of the target groups.
The move comes as Obama has endured criticism from many liberal activists who charge that he has ceded too much ground in budget battles with Republicans. In recent days, the president has sharpened his partisan tone in public remarks on jobs and the economy, a change that has drawn praise from Democrats worried that flagging enthusiasm among core party voters could hurt Obama’s reelection chances.
And it is complemented by changes at the White House, including the impending hiring of a new Jewish community liaison and the recent promotion of another aide tasked with forging closer ties to black lawmakers, who have accused Obama of shying away from boosting troubled African American communities out of fear of alienating white voters.
“He was an exciting candidate, a fresh face,” said Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D-N.J.), one of Obama’s earliest 2008 backers. “And now he is an experienced president with a lot of maturity and more successes than failures legislatively, but in a divided government [there is] some inevitable disappointment.”
“I don’t agree that the specialness of his candidacy will be absent from this election,” Rothman added. But “the world has changed. The American economy has changed.”
The tactical shift from 2008 is a matter of “survival of the most adaptable,” said longtime Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who is advising an independent, pro-Democratic group called Priorities USA.
“They did everything right in 2008, but that doesn’t mean they should do everything the way they did it in 2008,” Begala said. “It’s completely changed circumstances. You can’t be as untraditional as they were in 2008 when you’re the president. He’s the man now.”
Campaign officials say the program has been in the works from the earliest planning stages and that it was always their intention to maximize support from key voter groups. The difference now, they say, is that unlike in the frenetic primary contest and short general election campaign of 2008, Obama and his team have the luxury of time to establish a more expansive strategy, with 14 months still to go before the election.
The campaign officials say they have not given up on wooing independents, and the 2012 presidential election will certainly involve a fierce fight for the college-educated whites and suburbanites who were more likely to back Obama in 2008 than the working-class whites who have always been more skeptical.
“What will matter most to Americans of all backgrounds boils down to this: the President is fighting every day to provide economic security for the middle class and to make the economy more fair, while the Republicans want to double down on policies that led to the challenges we face,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in an e-mail.
Exit polls showed that Obama won 43 percent of the white vote in 2008 — in the typical range for a Democrat — but Gallup shows that his approval rating among whites now stands at less than a third.
Ultimately, the Obama strategy for reaching independents will depend largely on whom the GOP nominates; polls suggest a variation in how the different Republican candidates might perform with that group.
Still, the formula for Obama comes down to this: convincing enough additional minorities and core liberals to turn out and vote next year to make up for a loss of support from centrist and conservative whites.
The focus on key ethnic and liberal groups is far more robust this time, aides say, as the campaign scours battleground states where the election is likely to be decided on the margins.
“It’s more comprehensive” than four years ago, said a campaign official, speaking anonymously to discuss internal strategy. As an illustration, the official pointed to a state with heavy concentrations of blacks and Hispanics. “How do we look at Florida and look at the makeup of that state and get to 50 percent plus one?”
Recent surveys showing the president’s approval rating in the 40s outline the challenge for the campaign. Even among minorities and other core Democrats, Obama has work to do.
A Washington Post-ABC poll published last week showed that while African Americans continue to view the president favorably in overwhelming numbers, the proportion of blacks expressing strongly positive views of Obama has dropped 25 points since mid-April — from 83 percent to 58 percent. His “favorable” rating has slipped below 50 percent among those age 18 to 29. And among all liberal Democrats, that number has dropped from 69 percent in April to 52 percent.
The minority share of the overall electorate is expected to rise — it was slightly more than a quarter in 2008 — giving Obama a head start.
Gallup, meanwhile, has found that Obama’s approval rating has dropped among Jews, as well — a point driven home this month when Republicans scored a surprise special-election victory in a heavily Jewish New York City House district long held by Democrats.
Some in the party worried that Jews were responding to Obama’s Israeli-Palestinian policy and a May speech in which he called for a return to 1967 borders “with mutually agreed swaps” — a position that drew a rebuke from Israel’s government. Others argued that the New York defeat had more to do with the economy.
Then last week, as the Obama administration tried to fend off a move by the Palestinian Authority to win a U.N. vote on statehood, Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Mitt Romney accused Obama of failing to fully support Israel.
Days earlier, the Obama campaign tapped Ira Forman, 59, longtime executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, as its Jewish-community point person for the Operation Vote program.
The campaign also launched a Web page for Jewish voters to promote Obama’s record on Israel. One recent post by strategist David Axelrod, titled “What Barak Said About Barack,” quotes Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak complimenting the U.S. president on his support for the Jewish state.
A women’s page features a photo gallery of high-level female administration officials under the headline “Barack Obama’s Strong Leaders,” including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Web pages for other Operation Vote target groups are forthcoming, and the campaign expects to announce a raft of additional staffers to be hired in the coming weeks to spearhead the efforts for each group.
Obama has stepped up his outreach to core supporters, as well. After months of criticism from black lawmakers that the president seemed reluctant to directly address the needs of struggling African Americans or even discuss the 16 percent jobless rate in that community, the president this month popped into a White House gathering where African American bloggers had been invited in to discuss the issue with senior aides.
Congressional Black Caucus officials say they are suddenly being showered with attention from the White House — even receiving a fact sheet after the president’s recent jobs speech calling the black unemployment rate “unacceptably high” and listing “targeted” help in the jobs plan, such as aid that would help 1.4 million African American families.
Addressing the caucus’s annual dinner Saturday night, Obama reeled off more statistics showing how he said his jobs bill would help millions of black Americans. He lamented the community’s steep economic troubles, telling cheering audience members that he needs their help, despite any discouragement they have felt.
“I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain,” he said. “I am going to press on. I expect all of you to march with me. . . . Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on.”
Likewise, amid criticism from immigration activists that Obama has pursued an overly aggressive deportation policy, White House aides and administration officials are meeting across the country with local Hispanic leaders to make a case that his economic policies are helping their communities.
Former congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a Jewish outreach adviser to the Obama campaign, described the White House strategy as “proactive engagement with the base to explain the president’s record, not only why they should be pleased but should be excited and activated.”
“It is somewhat traditional politics,” Wexler added. “On the other hand, I think there’s a realization that the president’s opponents play hardball. And this is a manifestation of the president and his campaign’s decision to play hardball back. And, quite frankly, many of the president’s supporters are happy to see it.”
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.