Obama Takes a Page From Nixon's Handbook

Come November 2012, independents will remember the president's earlier appeals to the hard left.

President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is now up and operating. It's an interesting amalgam: Tactically, it's Bushian—but strategically, it's Nixonian.

The Obama approach copies the tactical emphasis of President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election effort. On Monday, Mr. Obama's manager Jim Messina told volunteers that the campaign would focus on "expanding the electorate . . . growing the grass roots . . . measuring progress; and working for every vote." With his emphasis on metrics and growing the electorate, Mr. Messina sounded a lot like Mr. Bush's 2004 campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, outlining the Bush campaign's re-election priorities. (That strategy worked: Mr. Bush got 25% more votes in '04 than he did in 2000.)

A metric-driven approach that relies on grass-roots volunteers will serve Mr. Obama well, especially compared to the Democrats' 2004 campaign, which emphasized paid canvassers recruited from temp agencies and union halls. Voters know the difference between a personal appeal from a passionate volunteer and a pro-forma pitch from someone more interested in a check than a cause.

But Mr. Obama is making a mistake by following the advice of President Richard Nixon, who argued White House hopefuls must run to their party's flank in the primary and tack back to the center for the general election. While Mr. Obama doesn't face a primary challenge, the White House is worried about the intensity of the Democratic base and feels compelled to feed it red meat now.

This bit of conventional wisdom assumes two things. First, that ordinary voters aren't paying attention now (they are). And second, that veering hard left in 2011 won't limit Mr. Obama's appeal in 2012 (it will). Many swing voters are repelled by the class-warfare rhetoric Mr. Obama uses to fire up the Democratic base. Appealing to envy is usually not a winning formula.

Impressions once created are hard to change. When they do, change is often accompanied by disappointment, as evidenced by what's happened since those hope-filled days of 2008, when independents believed Mr. Obama meant it when he pledged to lead us into new era of post-partisanship.

By 2010, the reality of the Obama presidency—with its spending binges and deficits—had soured voters. The man who promised hope and change was revealed as a calculating politician. Independents reacted last fall by voting for Republicans for Congress by 56% to 37% after going for Mr. Obama by 52% to 44% two years earlier.

The president is also in trouble on the issues. In the Gallup poll late last month, just 39% approved of his handling of the economy. Only 33% approved of his handling of the deficit. And Pollster.com's summary this week shows an average of 49.9% disapprove of Mr. Obama's health-care reform, while 37.3% approve.

Mr. Obama's Nixonian strategy will do nothing to change these numbers. Instead, it risks permanently alienating independents, soft Republicans, and a few Democrats who dislike his appeal to the hard left. Savaging the GOP's deficit-reduction plan as "radical" and "nothing serious" may fire up Daily Kos bloggers and gratify Nancy Pelosi. But it's likely to turn off swing voters.

The president will face no serious Democratic primary opponent, and it will be at least next March or April before the GOP settles on its candidate. So while Mr. Obama does need to raise funds and build a grass-roots network in battleground states, he did not need to abandon his role as chief executive for campaigner-in-chief quite so quickly.

Mr. Obama had a better strategy available. He could have decided to focus for as long as possible on making progress on major issues like entitlement reform. He could have asked Congress in his State of the Union address to join him and then seriously try to get it done. Republicans were in no position to rebuff his overture. He would have looked confident and in command. If something passed, the nation would have applauded his leadership. If nothing passed, voters would have appreciated his attempt.

But that moment is lost. It's clear Mr. Obama likes campaigning more than governing. And for this president, campaigning means knocking down straw men and delivering a steady stream of misleading attacks. It means depicting opponents as indecent, heartless people who take special delight in targeting seniors and autistic children. It means basking in the adulation of a partisan crowd rather than engaging in the difficult work of passing bipartisan legislation.

Since Mr. Obama can't make an affirmative case for his re-election, he has decided to try convincing voters that Republicans are monstrous. As a result, America is likely to see the most negative re-election campaign ever mounted by a sitting president.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, April 27, 2011.