In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has demolished any expectations that he would seek re-election by returning to his idealistic rhetoric of 2008, when he promised to heal America's political divisions.
Instead Mr. Obama shrilly insists his Republican opposition puts party ahead of country with policies that would "fundamentally cripple America." He pits American against American on the basis of their bank accounts, saying it's time for "millionaires and billionaires" to "pay their fair share."
And he's again turning to preposterous straw man arguments, such as when he told Congress earlier this month that Republicans would "just dismantle government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own."
Mr. Obama's attacks are not just at odds with his 2008 campaign's lofty tone. They are also politically dumb.
True, the president runs little risk of losing Democratic votes next fall. Some in his party are less enthusiastic about donating or volunteering than they were in 2008, but they will still vote for him. The Sept. 18 Gallup poll shows 88% of Democrats favoring him over Texas Gov. Rick Perry and 85% over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. These are relatively strong numbers.
But by trying to reignite Democratic donor and activist fervor with slash-and-burn attacks, Mr. Obama mostly damages himself. The damage will be to his support among swing voters. Accusing political opponents of being un-American and engaging in class warfare to push trillions in tax increases are not the messages Mr. Obama needs to win back those who decided the last presidential election in his favor and will determine the outcome of the next.
One way to measure the disenchantment of these critical swing voters is to compare the president's job approval rating today with where it stood at the time of his inauguration. It's virtually impossible for presidents to keep their approval ratings at the sky-high levels they enjoy at their inaugurations. Decline is inevitable. But the steepness of the decline matters. That is why the president should be alarmed.
Mr. Obama's job approval rating was 67% in January 2009. By the Sept. 25 Gallup Poll, it had fallen to 41%. More importantly, Mr. Obama's standing has declined significantly among five groups vital to his success in 2008.
The president's approval rating among young people has plummeted 30 points (it now stands at just 45%). Among both independents and women, it has dropped 26 points (to 36% and 43%, respectively). Among college graduates, it's fallen 24 points (to 45%). Among Hispanics, it's declined 23 points (leaving his support at just 51%).
Mr. Obama carried all these groups in 2008: young people by 66% to 32% (a swing toward the Democrats of 12 points from 2004); independents by 52% to 44% (a swing of three points); women by 56% to 43% (a swing of five points); college graduates by 50% to 48% (a swing of four points); and Hispanics by 67% to 31% (a swing of 14 points).
To win in 2012, Republican candidates don't need to carry these groups. They merely need to cut into Mr. Obama's numbers, and the president is making that job easier for the GOP.
There are two ways the president could re-energize Democrats. One is by offering a positive, uplifting vision, which is what Mr. Obama did in 2008. If employed now, that strategy would allow the president to reconnect with the swing voters he desperately needs for victory.
The other approach is to feed the Democratic base red meat, which is what Mr. Obama is doing now. But what pleases left-wing donors and activists will alienate the decisive voters.
Team Obama assumes the president can play to disenchanted donors and MoveOn.org organizers now and pivot to the center next fall. I'm not so sure. The image of the president's red-hot rhetoric and slashing tone, combined with his tax-and-spend policies, will linger.
Republicans will be sure they're not forgotten. Mr. Obama is providing an embarrassment of riches for GOP ad makers.
David Axelrod, one of the president's top political advisers, recently said Mr. Obama faces a "Titanic struggle" for re-election. Mr. Axelrod is right, but not in the way he means. We are rapidly approaching the time when arguing about one set of political tactics versus another may be about as useful for Mr. Obama as rearranging deck chairs on the world's most famous passenger liner.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, September 28, 2011.