Jonathan Chait

Is Obama Running On Character?

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Michael Scherer thinks so:

Obama will be running on his character. The most interesting quote of the video comes from the southern white guy. "I don't agree with Obama on everything. But I respect him and I trust him." Consider what an extraordinary line this is for a video meant to recruit volunteers to organize for a presidential campaign. Have you ever met a campaign organizer that goes door-to-door or works the phones for a candidate that they admit they don't agree with? The reasoning behind this line can be found in a recentĀ Associated Press poll. As of late March, 53% of the country approved of the way Obama was doing his job as president. But 59% said they had a favorable view of Obama, 59% said Obama "cares about people like" them, and 84% said he was a likable person. Obama would rather make his pitch to 84% of the country than from 53% of the country. That white guy from North Carolina represents the gap between.

I think this is overstated, but there's some truth here. Obama is going to run a campaign contrasting his efforts to move the country in the right direction against what is likely to be a very right-wing Republican alternative. But character will be an important part of the component. Obama is personally popular, and any Republican opponent is likely to twist himself into pretzels to become acceptable to the GOP base, therefore inviting skepticism about his "authenticity." (Alternatively, the nominee will be a true loon, like Michelle Bachmann, in which case Obama's strategy won't matter much.)

What's most interesting is that Republicans never hammered home a strong character narrative about Obama. The party's M.O. since Bill Clinton has been to make the Democratic nominee personally unacceptable -- a liar, a flip-flopper, a phony, a girly man. There have been some half attempts to flesh out a story about Obama as arrogant, but it's a weak charge and it hasn't really gone anywhere.

Why have Republicans abandoned their playbook against Obama? One reason is that they've been confounded by race, and unable to craft a negative personal message that didn't make them feel vulnerable to charges of racism. Another reason is that they feel confident -- excessively confident, I'd say -- that they can beat Obama on the economy and policy, blaming his Big Government policies for the recession.

In any case, Obama's personal popularity reflects not just his talents as a political communicator but a failure of the GOP to change that perception.

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