The most consistent characteristic of the Obama White House, according to many Democrats, has been its inconsistency.
Whether because of circumstance or temperament, President Barack Obama has toggled though a succession of messages, policies and strategies over the past three years, a marked contrast to his intensely focused campaign in 2008.
This restless synaptic churn has been so jarring many allies have taken to joking that he must be suffering from some kind of presidential attention deficit disorder.
But Obama seems to have finally found a prescription for consistency and, perhaps, effective messaging: the jobs bill that he has focused on in speeches and press conferences since September, despite determined opposition to most elements of the bill from congressional Republicans.
The question Democrats are asking now: Will he stay on his meds?
“There’s been a lot less zigging and zagging lately, which is great, and I hope it will continue,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. and Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell. “They have finally found a simple, popular message, and they are pounding away at it. … In the first couple of years, they tried to do a little too much, to their credit, but they were outspun by a bunch of old Republican pros.”
One Democratic operative, responsible for raising tens of million dollars for the party in recent years, said the debt ceiling debacle, which damaged Obama’s approval ratings, convinced the White House that its previous strategy of compromise and flexibility — that quest for a political middle passage to woo independents — was pointless.
“It’s not just consistency; it’s that they finally found something that really appeals to the base and is also popular among a broad section of the American people,” the operative told POLITICO, referring to the jobs bill — the American Jobs Act, which includes $35 billion to forestall local teacher, police and firefighter layoffs. “It’s not only something he can run on, it will probably force the Republicans to accept some parts of his proposal.”
But the “bigger deal” politically, he added, “is this push to tax the rich. It has a major upside. It fits the populist times.”
There are dangers, of course, to the more confrontational tone — a break in itself from the Obama brand of postpartisan healer.
One is just the difficulty of keeping it up: The White House will need to redouble its effort to stay on message over the next month, when the president will take two foreign trips and the congressional supercommittee is scheduled to report its recommendations for at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.
West Wing officials are particularly worried that the looming confrontation over the supercommittee will draw Obama back into another death hug with the GOP and keep him in Washington, sapping his momentum.
But the broader concern for Obama is bridging the gap between his relatively low approval ratings and the overwhelming popularity of individual components of his jobs bill and tax proposal. Voters love some of the proposed policies — 73 percent of independents, for example, favor his plan to increase taxes on families making over $250,000, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll from July.
Obama’s approval numbers have been creeping up over the past six weeks, but most Americans simply don’t trust him on the economy no matter how open they are to his ideas after nearly three years of an unconvincing recovery, GOP attacks and hard-to-categorize administration policies.
“We have a tough economy,” a senior administration official this week said, explaining the gap between the popularity of the president’s proposals and his job rating. “The sun comes up in the morning. The grass is green. The sky is blue. We have a tough economy. We’re going to have a tough election. That is just the deal. Nothing is going to change.”
A second senior administration official said Obama’s standing with voters isn’t likely to improve before Republicans settle on a presidential candidate, and then the contrast will become clear. The GOP nominee, the official said, “will have a set of positions that are so far out of touch with the American people that it will be hard to defend.”