Based on what the president and his advisers have said and done in recent weeks, that strategy appears to consist of creating populist confrontations with Congress and then complaining that Washington is broken because Republicans won’t let the president have his way. That’s a strategy that tells the public that the current situation in Washington is untenable and change is needed. Is that not an odd way for a Democratic incumbent president (whose party also controls the Senate) to run against a Republican outsider? It first of all exacerbates the public’s mistrust of government, which tends to reinforce Republican policy proposals (since those generally aim to take power away from government) but to undermine Democratic ones (which generally aim to give more power to government). It also implies that President Obama is having trouble doing his job, which can’t be a great re-election theme. It says that the problem we have is the result of a conflict between the president and Congress in a year when the Republican party, but not the Democratic party, will be led by someone who is neither the president nor in Congress and so is presumably not part of that problem. And it argues (understandably) that things could only get better if the White House and Congress were both held by Democrats—but the last time that happened was when we ended up with those unpopular achievements of Obama’s first two years. Is he proposing to do more of that?
Indeed, the question of just what he is proposing to do raises another peculiar problem with this emerging strategy. The Obama team’s approach might make sense if the substance of their policy proposals were enormously popular, so that telling the public that these could be enacted if only Obama is given a few more years to push them might help his case. But what are those proposals? A payroll-tax holiday? Higher taxes on the wealthy? Is there anything else? Or to put it another way, why does the president want to be re-elected? To stop Mitt Romney? To implement Obamacare? What does he want to do with a second term? More of the same?