As President Barack Obama left the podium on October 1 to a standing ovation at the 15th annual Human Rights Campaign dinner where he was the keynote speaker, his reminders of his accomplishments on LGBT issues during his first term were still resonating among the crowd of 3,000. The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ his call for the end of the Defense of Marriage Act, the passage of a comprehensive Hate Crimes bill, non discrimination in hospitals, lifting the HIV travel ban, and a continued focus on bullying head the list.
It was also a stark reminder that this progress for LGBT Americans may not continue after the 2012 elections. “I don’t have to tell you, there are those who don't want to just stand in our way but want to turn the clock back; who want to return to the days when gay people couldn’t serve their country openly,” the president warned.
Fresh off eight years of failures of the Bush administration, Obama burst onto the electoral scene with the mantra of “hope and change” as well as his opposition to the war in Iraq. He steamrolled over the favored and more experienced Hillary Clinton to win the nomination. And then Obama, as we know, handily defeated a one-time decent independent-minded Senator John McCain who, sadly, veered sharply to the right in the general election.
Obama—African-American, inexperienced and liberal—was seen by the electorate as the anti-Bush and one who can lead the country from the economic morass the previous administration left as a legacy.
But things did not work out well for the new president. He made health care reform the centerpiece of his legislative agenda early on and galvanized a relatively small, noisy bunch of folks who despised Obama from the outset to lead an unsuccessful nationwide crusade against the proposed reforms. This group, who never understood the rudiments of the complex legislation, simply opposed it and protested vehemently at town halls, on the airwaves and on the blogosphere.
The protests gave rise to the “Tea Party” movement that consisted mainly of far right, debt-obsessed, anti-government, white Republicans, who charge that Obama is a big-spending socialist, and they pledged to “take the country back.” With the unemployment rate excessively high and a slowing economy that did not respond effectively to the stimulus that Obama and Congress implemented, the Tea Party faction gained in numbers and strength and wound up shaking up Congress in the 2010 elections.
As the calendar turned to the 2012 election cycle, Obama is considered very vulnerable, especially with an unemployment rate hovering at 9 percent, and forecasters do not see an appreciable drop by next November. His poll numbers have been tanking steadily—even after the debt ceiling debacle, which was largely blamed on intransigent House Republicans beholden to Tea Party members.
Recent history points to incumbents who failed in a bid for a second term because of poor economic conditions. Jimmy Carter and Bush 41 are good examples. But with the relentless vitriol leveled at Obama from the 2008 campaign to the present fueled by 24-hour news cycles, unaccountable blogs and social media, the economy’s woes became magnified—and personal.
There are 13 months until the general election and it appears that there will be insufficient time to right the economy especially because it would not serve the GOP’s political interests to cooperate with the president on job plans and other measures to get people back to work.
So with these toxic conditions, poor poll numbers, and an erosion of the base, how can Obama sleep at night with these seemingly insurmountable odds? The answer: he can because he will have a Republican opponent to face off against.
Many, if not most, political pundits view the current GOP field as weak. Moreover, polls clearly show a much worse approval rating for Republicans than the president. As a result, Obama’s goal should be to make the 2012 election a choice and not a referendum—although he had amassed an impressive list of legislative and foreign policy accomplishments to tout.
Governor Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are the so-called front runners at this juncture. Romney is disliked by the Tea Party crowd largely because they doubt his conservative chops. Gaffe-prone Perry lacks the confidence of GOP establishment and Wall Street types.
A new Quinnipiac poll in Pennsylvania shows that just 43% approve of Obama’s job, while 51% say he doesn’t deserve a second term. However, in head-to-head match-ups, he leads Romney (45%-43%) and Perry (46%-40%). And a new Quinnipiac poll in Ohio finds similar numbers for Obama in the Buckeye State: just 42% approve of his job, and 51% say he doesn’t deserve re-election. In head-to-heads in Ohio, Obama leads Perry (44%-41%) and Romney (44%-42%).
The results in these important states show that while Obama has been beaten down and the economy stinks, his opponent is perceived as worse. This is critical because the “independent” vote will determine the election, and they reject extremes. Helping Obama’s cause are the outrageous reactions from Republican audience members during their debates including the horrific booing of a gay soldier in Iraq.
But what is even more essential is Obama’s ability to bring back and fire up his base. His speech at HRC is a good first step.