Shortly before the last presidential election, the economy took a real dive. (I doubt anyone gasped at that last line.) Jame’s Carville’s old maxim was relevant as ever: “It’s the economy stupid.” I was at the Bucks County Community College town-hall-turned-stump-speech where McCain finally revealed his economic plan. The issues really seemed to outpace him and the consensus seemed to be that President Obama entered office with an overwhelming mandate to enact his economic plan.
Fast forward less than three years and the new election cycle is in full-swing. I can barely remember how many debates have already taken place; flavors of the month have come and gone; and superstar holdouts like Palin have lost relevance, while the chants for a Christie campaign are growing ever louder, despite the many obstacles to that end. In the meantime, the two relevant candidates and the rest of the field have been falling over one another face-first in a race to throw out tea party crowds as much red meat as possible, whether that involves promising $2-a-gallon gas or chastising an active-duty gay soldier. Meanwhile, Rick Perry is having to walk back on his one position that might eat into a traditional democratic constituency and make him ever-so-slightly more electable in a general election. But the primary isn’t about general electability and alienating the fastest-growing demographic group doesn’t seem to be troubling any candidate all that much.
But that’s what a primary is about: rallying the base, getting them excited to vote in the general election and exposing them to one’s “real” views before tempering them down to suit the general electorate’s taste. The porridge has to be too hot before it can be just right. Obama doesn’t have that same advantage going into this election. Without a legitimate challenger for the Democratic nomination, he can’t engage in a race-to-the-bottom to rile up the base. Further, he can’t make the wild, impractical promises that the primary candidates are empowered to make, because he actually has to deal with the realities of governance (something Michelle Bachmann seems to be avoiding beautifully these days).
Obama does seem to be making some efforts to reach out to the base, though, giving a fiery and slightly folksy speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. This seems to have prompted a backlash from African-American intellectuals and politicians, though it’s uncertain what effect the backlash will have on the base, and clips of the speech will likely prove useful for the Obama campaign’s public relations team.
Yet, the President is also engaging in outreach to a community with which he has a less steady record. In general, Hispanic activists seem to be happy with steps Obama has taken to curb deportations, focusing generally on criminal aliens, though DHS controversially clarified that Secure Communities participation isn’t really optional. But, as his approval among Hispanics falls, Obama seems intent on blaming the do-nothing Congress for the lack of any meaningful immigration reform. People like Charles Jones would argue that he has a very valid point. The President’s job is to enforce laws enacted by Congress, not legislate from the Oval Office. Yet, Obama seems intent on showing — now — that he’s doing all he can do. The DOJ this week began an even more aggressive campaign against state immigration laws, which have been the subject of even more ire among immigration reform advocates than federal action or inaction.
Having been frustrated by a lack of action on the issue over the summer, when I was working on immigration reform, I can’t help but think that the timing is somewhat curious. The President is starting a number of legal battles with states, which are likely to go on through much of the election season. In the meantime, most of his potential opponents seem to be doing everything in their power to alienate Hispanics, even though the GOP has been trying to do some outreach. But with action on jobs and immigration finally coming to the forefront now, one can’t help but wonder if the administration is trying to sculpt the agenda around the election cycle. The economy is still shaky (and potentially getting even worse), so focusing the election on other issues more amenable to the President might actually work to rile up those in the base who might be tempted to defect because of the economy. We’ll have to see how this develops, but this could shape up to be a year of issues tailored to the campaign, rather than a campaign on the issues.
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