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Why Obama isn't in a better position

Sep 23, 2012 - By Carl Leubsdorf

Three years of slow recovery from an inherited recession have left Barack Obama struggling to win the second term that eluded just one of his four most recent predecessors.

It's the main reason, despite his political skills and the demographic changes that favor the Democratic Party, he's not in a stronger position.

Democrats have finally developed a positive response to Ronald Reagan's iconic question by arguing the country is doing better than four years ago because jobs are being created, not lost. And on Thursday night, Obama will likely give a compelling acceptance speech because that's something he does best.

Still, he won't easily overcome the fact that his presidency has often failed to go beyond devising policy prescriptions to undertake consistent, coordinated and understandable efforts to sell them.

That's why many Democrats remain wary about his prospects. While they believe he deserves credit for carrying out his principal 2008 promises, they recognize his strategic and tactical mistakes have helped undercut his hopes of a historic presidency.

The list is extensive:

He promised bipartisanship, but failed at the outset to reach out and establish working relations with Republican congressional leaders. They would still have opposed his agenda, but he'd be on stronger ground politically and better able to negotiate compromises.

He let Democratic House members write his economic stimulus bill, making it more of a pork barrel measure than necessary. By including tax cuts up front, rather than using them to bargain for Republican support, he made the bill weaker than it could have been without attracting GOP votes.

His advisers undercut the effort politically by promising it would keep unemployment under 8 percent, making it seem a failure though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said it saved more than 3 million jobs and prevented a double digit jobless rate.

He overloaded the congressional agenda by pushing controversial "cap and trade" climate change legislation, forcing House Democrats to cast a politically risky vote for a measure destined for failure in the Senate.

On his signature health bill, Obama should have taken a stronger lead by presenting Congress with more than principles. By negotiating too long for a bipartisan Senate bill, the White House let Republicans play a delaying game while critics bashed the complex initiative.

Obama should have taken the political high ground by endorsing his bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission's deficit control plan, rather than just expressing general support for its principles.

His failure to anticipate the House GOP's determination to force deep spending cuts as a price for extending the debt ceiling cost considerable political damage before a final agreement was reached.

The administration mishandled the decision including Catholic institutions in the requirement insurance companies offer birth-control coverage, angering moderate Catholic leaders who helped pass its health plan.

Other Obama actions improved his chances. Targeting key terrorist leaders paid big dividends when he directed the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He followed through on his promise to complete the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, without serious consequences; launched the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the public favors; and avoided further U.S. troop commitments amid the Arab world's turmoil.

Since last September, he has sharpened his differences with the GOP on economic issues, presenting sensible proposals congressional Republicans ignored and arguing Romney offers the economic approach that caused prior problems.

That helped his job approval rise to around 50 percent, but his initial mistakes and the lagging recovery forced his campaign to go negative.

As Ann Romney correctly said in Tampa, "If the last four years had been more successful, do we really think there would be this attack on Mitt Romney's success?"

Still, Obama's campaign has kept the GOP off balance, enjoying success in portraying Romney as out of touch with voters. Romney's recent remarks about 47 percent of Americans who don't take responsibility for themselves, relying insterad on government handouts, won't help him.

Obama's convention speech should remind his supporters of the positive, upbeat man they elected, but his aggressive campaign may be the main reason he might surmount the high unemployment figure and his own mistakes to win a second term.

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Editor's note: Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. E-mail him at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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