Americans wait to see Obama’s next move

President Barack Obama is scheduled to fly out of Washington on Friday for a 10-day trip to Asia, leaving behind a Democratic party in turmoil, divided over what strategy to pursue to win back voters and hold the White House in 2012.

Liberal groups were urging him to be bold, move further to the left and engage in all-out war with the Republicans following disastrous mid-term elections. Others Democrats were pushing him to ditch his advisers, move to the centre and work alongside the Republicans.

Obama, speaking before a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, maintained a conciliatory tone in his approach towards the newly empowered Republicans, saying he would meet Republican and Democratic leaders at the White House on his return from Asia.

But Obama’s main decision for the 2012 campaign has still to be taken: whether to reach an accommodation with the Republicans in getting legislation through Congress, or opt for conflict and fight the election portraying them as obstructionist.

The president’s advisers have invited Democratic groups to the White House tomorrow. One prominent Democrat portrayed this as a sign of panic, but one of those invited insisted it was neither panic nor a strategy session, just a courtesy to thank them for their help during the election.

Obama has to mount a comeback comparable to Bill Clinton in 1996, who suffered a similar mid-term catastrophe in 1994. But the economy is in much worse shape now, with unemployment double that under Clinton at the same point in the election cycle.

A CNN poll published on Thursday, matching Obama against likely Republican candidates, showed him being beaten 52% to 44% by Mike Huckabee and 50% to 45% by Mitt Romney. But he would beat Sarah Palin by 52% to 44%.

However, Obama will have been heartened by the fact that 73% of Democrats believe he should be given the party nomination for the 2012 election, compared with only 57% who backed Clinton at the same point in 1994.

Move to the centre?
Don Baer, who was a senior adviser to Clinton between 1994 and 1997, the years when he made his comeback, said in a phone interview on Thursday that Obama had a better chance than most of winning a second term — but he had to move to the centre and engage constructively with the Republicans.

Clinton, though he had fights with the Republicans on core issues, did a deal with the right on balancing the budget. “One of the biggest risks is if the country comes to believe Obama is so hamstrung by partisan battles he can’t do the job he was elected for. They will say ‘we are sorry. We need to move on,'” Baer said.

He also argued for Obama’s White House to be reshuffled, including his chief adviser, David Axelrod, considering many advisers to be too partisan, with too many of them from a narrow congressional background. He said the White House should be about the bigger picture.

“Obama governs as if he was prime minster, whereas the president should be about more than that,” said Baer. “He has to stop being a legislative technician — and a not very good one — and start looking in a large way to instil confidence that he can lead in restoring the economic confidence.”

Another Democratic insider was scathing about Obama’s team: “They are wretched, terrible, too closed. They have failed and should go. Obama Mark One has to make way for Obama Mark Two. The cult of personality is over,” he said.

Obama is going to have to reshuffle his team anyway, with many having left before the mid-terms and those vacancies not yet filled. Axelrod is frequently reported to be unhappy in Washington and favours a return to Chicago, where he would head the re-election campaign.

Baer, who now works with the communications group Burson-Marsteller, said he did not know if Obama might opt to run in 2012 with Hillary Clinton as his vice-president. He added that Tuesday’s election showed the Democrats were failing to attract independents and women, two groups with whom Clinton did well during the 2008 primaries.

Unlike Baer, many Democrats see little point in trying to engage with the Republicans. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Democratic strategy group Campaign for America’s Future, is sceptical about reaching an accommodation with the Republicans.

“I think it is impossible and he should not try. He has to reach out but his hand will be spat on, as it was today,” said Borosage, who is among those invited to the White House on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said today that the Republicans’ aim is “to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bail-outs, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government”. To do that, he told the rightwing Heritage Foundation, they had to remove Obama from the White House.

Superficial cooperation
Borosage and the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg are to release a poll on Friday taken during election day that supports Borosage’s thesis: that the vote should not be seen as endorsement for the Republicans, that voters favour economic stimulus and big infrastructure projects, and that what they object to is waste.

However, Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon polling and research, said he did not expect much cooperation between the White House and the Republicans. “There will be some superficial cooperation but I think you will see two years in which not much is going on.”

What will matter is the economy and, perhaps, if there was an international crisis, such as in Afghanistan or a terrorist attack.

“Obama has to hope that he has done enough to get the economy going. A lot of it is out of his hands,” Coker said. –

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