“Americans are more pessimistic about the nation’s economic outlook and overall direction than they have been at any time since President Obama’s first two months in office, when the country was still officially ensnared in the Great Recession, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll…

“Disapproval of Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy has never been broader — at 57 percent of Americans — a warning sign as he begins to set his sights on re-election in 2012. And a similar percentage disapprove of how Mr. Obama is handling the federal budget deficit, though more disapprove of the way Republicans in Congress are.

“Still, for all the talk from Congressional Republicans and Mr. Obama of cutting the deficit as a way to improve the economy, only 29 percent of respondents said it would create more jobs. Twenty-seven percent said it would have no effect on the employment outlook, and 29 percent said it would cost jobs.”

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President Obama is not popular. He has not been popular for a very long time. Why should a single speech be expected to move a needle that hasn’t budged in a year?…

“Last week I wrote two columns, the first arguing that Obama is ‘just plain bad at politics,’ and the second asserting that his speech was meant to stabilize his position with the left. The two link up here: the speech might have been a good tactical move in pursuit of holding his Democratic base, but focusing on the base is a terrible strategy, considering his standing with the center of the electorate. Put simply, Obama has a very real problem with independent voters. He has had that problem for a long time – almost 24 months, in fact – and yet he and his team have done very little about it. One would have thought that the nineteen-point margin that independents handed the GOP in the 2010 House election would have alerted the White House to the trouble, as well as the fact that this swing helped give the Republicans the single largest House pickup in generations. But apparently not.

“Three previous presidents were in this kind of polling jam at this point in their administrations: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Reagan and Clinton both tracked back to the political center after their midterm drubbings, and Reagan had the benefit of a V-shaped recovery that was just starting at this point in his tenure. Carter, on the other hand, drifted sideways, as did the economy, which fell into recession by 1980. Who does Obama look like right today? I’d say Carter. Economic growth is slowing down, inflation is on the rise, the deficit is out of control, swing voters have gone away, and the guy in the Oval Office doesn’t seem to have the foggiest idea what to do about any of it.”

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“Campaign insiders admit the glaring irony this time around that Obama, who argued in 2008 that he was seasoned enough to be in Washington, would now have to paint himself as an outsider taking on the system. It could be a tougher sell, considering that being president makes anyone the ultimate insider. But the president’s 43 percent approval rating, which has dropped almost 20 points since he took office, shows the depth of the gap he’ll have to make up. Obama himself has even joked about the lost love. At the Palo Alto headquarters of Facebook on Wednesday, Obama confronted the disillusioned. ‘Your friends come and you say: ‘Oh, Obama’s changed. I used to be so excited; I still have a poster’… I understand how you guys feel. But we knew this wouldn’t be easy. We knew that on a journey like this there were going to be setbacks. There were going to be detours.’

“While Obama delivers the message, back at the campaign headquarters the focus is on precinct maps. Several Democratic strategists say that the challenge is to keep the playing field large with up-in-the-air states staying out of Republican hands for as long as possible. Senior leaders like Mitch Stewart, who is Obama’s battleground states director, are reworking the map, figuring out which states are worthy of the most resources. ‘Last time Virginia and North Carolina turned out to be decisive, but the country’s been through a lot and we’re now trying to redefine the battlefield,’ says the campaign’s O’Malley Dillon. Those strategy sessions resulted in the president’s trip to Los Angeles and the Bay Area this week, both considered perennial ATMs for Democratic nominees.

“Yet the largest strategic consideration is one that will still take months to sort itself out: Who will be Obama’s final opponent?”

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