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Nervous Obama takes refuge in his base

Unable to extend his popularity, the president reinforces his appeal to key constituencies

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

August 26, 2012

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One of the first rules of politics is to re-energize the base when in trouble. Rarely have we observed such adherence to the rule as in the case of President Barack Obama.

Economic growth is anemic. The high expectations (and optimistic predictions) that followed passage of the economic stimulus are a distant memory. A stubbornly high unemployment rate brings monthly negative headlines. There are more Americans living in poverty than ever before. And $5 trillion in new debt has caused at least one Wall Street rating agency to lower the country's credit rating.

This is not an environment conducive to attracting new constituencies. Neither does it make a particularly effective pitch for independents, many of whom have repudiated both political parties for their failure to control federal spending. This unhappy political cocktail is topped off by uneasiness among younger voters. Many still believe the president to be charismatic and hip. But far too many are jobless and in serious student debt purgatory. They, too, are less enthusiastic than they were four years ago.

All of which leads back to the president's need to cultivate base Democratic constituencies.

For those of you not keeping count, consider the following:

•Women: Democrats generally (and the president in particular) enjoy a clear advantage with the fairer sex. But how to drive turnout? As it turns out, easy; just break glass and play the abortion card. Then, amend the Conscience Clause in order to force religious institutions to provide contraceptive services to their female employees — for free. Declare that any opposition to the foregoing amounts to a "war on women." Finally, take Sandra Fluke — an aggrieved young law student from a Catholic and Jesuit institution — on the road as a not-too-subtle reminder of the aforementioned war.

•Organized labor: Today, white working-class men vote Republican in large numbers. But there remains one ray of sunshine in this crowd: union Democrats. Although many no longer adhere to the union line (see up-ballot Dundalk precinct results over the past 20 years), there remain enough Yellow Dog Democrats in the ranks to pull out the stops: union-friendly Project Labor Agreements are now the law of the land in federal contracting; the National Labor Relations Board attempts to stop Boeing Corp. from building a new production line in right-to-work South Carolina; and a determined (but unsuccessful to this point) effort to kill the District of Columbia school voucher program are but a few of the union-line measures adopted by the administration.

•Hispanics: Another Democratic-leaning group, but not too happy with Obama-nomics and the now-abandoned "You didn't build that" narrative. So, just issue an executive order allowing undocumented (translation: illegal) children of undocumented (translation: illegal) parents temporary residency and work status. Ignore the fact that most younger workers will not qualify under the program's guidelines.

•African-Americans: Over 90 percent of black voters will support the president's re-election. But this level of support is not enough. The Obama campaign needs historic turnout, too, especially in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The rhetoric is already over-heated (Vice President Joe Biden's comment stating that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan "are going to put y'all back in chains" being the latest affront), but the focus is on policy targeted to turnout.

Witness the Justice Department's all-out attack on voter identification laws across the nation. This, to perpetuate the notion that providing proper identification at the polls is somehow discriminatory. And it's not just photo identification requirements either. DOJ is scrutinizing all new ballot protection initiatives passed by Republican legislatures.

Another entreaty to African-American leaders is the recent directive to weaken work requirements under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The Congressional Black Caucus has long opposed this key plank in the legislation. The president now begins the task of unwinding it in the heat of the 2012 campaign.

•Gays: The president's well-advertised evolution from opposition to re-evaluation to support for gay nuptials arrived just in time for a summer fundraising drive with wealthy gay contributors. Few believe this about-face on a key social issue will weaken African-American support at the polls, however.

The foregoing moves are time-tested and rational. They have ignited base Democratic voters and will continue to do so. But such actions come at a cost: "Hope" and "change" are now replaced by aggressive attack ads and intense partisanship. It's an "us vs. them" narrative. It's a bare-knuckle fight on both sides of the aisle. In other words, things have returned to normal in Washington, D.C.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.