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So Much For Obama’s Social Issues Strategy

Amid all the hoopla over President Obama’s gay marriage announcement last week, there were a few cautionary head shakes from the wise old men (and wise young old men) of the punditocracy: Obama may be basking in the glow of history now, they said, but his strategy of trying to elevate social issues to the Democrats’ benefit, and thus distract voters from economic issues, was a dubious one. On this site, Bill Galston declared that Obama was, with this strategy, effectively giving up on competing in Ohio and going for a “Colorado” path to 270 electoral votes instead, while in his Sunday New York Times column, Ross Douthat went even further in seeing a grand Obama plan to try and make this a cultural-issues election, between the gay marriage shift and the fight with the Catholic bishops over contraception coverage:

The question, though, is what this successful maneuvering is actually gaining the White House. The weaknesses it’s trying to exploit are real enough: the country is moving leftward on many social issues, and Romney’s mix of squareness and weirdness — the moneyed background, the Mormonism, the 1950s persona — makes it relatively easy to portray him as culturally out of touch.

But this would be a bigger problem for Republicans if the 2012 campaign were taking place amid prosperity and plenty. At times, the Obama White House seems to be attempting to run a liberal version of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, which used cultural arguments to delegitimize Michael Dukakis. But today’s economic landscape looks more like 1992, when Bush the elder discovered that the same arguments availed him little with a recession-weary electorate — even in a race against a slick, womanizing draft-dodger.

Making Americans feel uncomfortable with Romney, in other words, won’t be enough if the economy keeps sputtering along. What Obama needs, instead, is to make voters fear a Romney presidency, even more than they fear four more years of high deficits and slow growth. And a re-election campaign that focuses on gay marriage, or the Dream Act, or birth control, or how Romney treated his dog and high school classmates is unlikely to stoke that kind of fear.

What might? Well, in a pocketbook election it helps to focus on pocketbook anxieties. It’s true that every day the White House spends talking about social issues is a day it isn’t stuck talking about the economy. But it’s also a day when it hasn’t talked about how Mitt Romney wants to take away your retirement security to pay for tax cuts for the rich. This is a predictable Democratic argument, and a demagogic one. But it’s an argument that might actually make economically stressed Americans afraid of what a Romney presidency would bring.

Instead, Obama is currently running for re-election as an opponent of sexism, homophobia and social reaction in all its forms. This is a decent strategy for winning news cycles, which the administration clearly did last week — playing the media brilliantly and watching as Romney was thrown on the defensive yet again. But Obama has won news cycle after news cycle this spring, and yet the president and his unloved, out-of-step-with-the-times challenger are almost dead even in the polls. That’s a sign that something isn’t working — and that this White House, not for the first time, has mistaken a clever strategy for a winning one.

Douthat would have a very good point to make here about short and long term gains if what he was saying was, well, true. But it’s quite obviously not. The Obama campaign’s underlying message and strategy so far have been all about contrasting his vision for the economy with Mitt Romney. That’s what the campaign’s official kickoff speeches in Ohio and Virginia were all about. (And yes, he gave his first speech in Ohio. Which would seem to call slightly into question Galston’s claim that the campaign is effectively giving up on the state.) The campaign’s first ads last week were all about the economy—a “Morning in America”-style economic comeback ad, ads about the auto-industry rescue. And today, lo and behold, comes a very hard-edged two-minute ad attacking Romney and Bain Capital over their ill treatment of a Missouri steel mill that was reaped for big profits before they shut it down.


follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis