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Obama and the politics of disappointment

By Tom Foreman, CNN
updated 8:49 PM EST, Tue December 13, 2011
President Barack Obama must convince disappointed 2008 backers that he is worthy of their vote in 2012.
President Barack Obama must convince disappointed 2008 backers that he is worthy of their vote in 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • ANALYSIS: Many who backed Obama in 2008 are having second thoughts for 2012
  • The president needs to woo them back into his camp while shifting focus to the Republicans
  • Strategy may risk alienating moderates and independents, say experts

Washington (CNN) -- All politicians disappoint their supporters. It is a relentless truth in D.C.

They make pledges they can't keep, say things they don't mean, and encounter stiff headwinds in office that were just distant breezes on the campaign trail. The bigger their failed promises, the bigger the disappointment.

And just a few hours north of Washington, in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, it is easy to see that President Obama has a lot of disappointment standing between him and re-election.

"I believed in him 100%," says Andy Heller in Scranton. "I thought it was going to be a big turnaround from President Bush. But now you have to wonder."

Heller, 56, is a registered Democrat who runs Steamtown Blueprint and Copy Center, a small construction-related firm. In 2008, he placed yard signs for Obama, attended fundraisers and eagerly awaited a first term that he thought would bring more cooperation, more innovation, or at least a better economy. Since then, business has grown worse, the atmosphere in Washington has become more toxic and his faith in Barack Obama has steadily dwindled. "I'm not sure it was entirely his fault, but he made promises he couldn't keep."

Across town, Mark Dennebaum Jr., 31, is one of those young voters who created the wave Obama rode into office. At his place, 25/8 Productions, a video production shop, business is good, but the feeling among his friends about Obama is much the same as it is elsewhere. "When he spoke it was truly inspiring. I loved him in 2008, and right now if this were in a relationship, I'd be talking to a divorce attorney. When you mention Obama, there is a giant, collective sigh."

The depth of the turnaround is massive. Three years ago this month, 77% of voters polled told CNN they believed Obama would unite the country, 68% said they were either "thrilled" or "happy" he'd been elected, 79% thought he'd do a good job and 74% were confident he would improve the economy.

Today his approval rating wallows in the mid 40% range; disapproval is over 50%. And a dismal 35% of the voters like the way he is handling the economy.

I loved him in 2008, and right now if this were in a relationship, I'd be talking to a divorce attorney.
Mark Dennebaum Jr., video producer who supported Obama in 2008

Among the chief complaints of many voters: Obama has been too quick to compromise, too weak in taking on opponents and too much like just another politician intent on triangulating re-election, rather than being the transformative, bold leader they thought they were electing. "You don't get a do over," Dennebaum says. "If you have four years to make a difference that should be your focus."

White House going on offense

Sharply aware of such sentiment, the White House is now clearly launching an offensive aimed at shifting voter disappointment from their man to the opposition. Although Obama long gave up much of his talk about bipartisanship, now he is tearing into the Republicans regularly, suggesting they are doing nothing to help the economy, because they are sure it will cost him the White House.

In his headline-making interview with Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes," the president boiled his version of the Republican philosophy down to a phrase. " 'Anything Obama is for, we're against.' And so," Obama adds, "we haven't gotten the kind of engagement from them that I would have liked."

The tactic has caught the attention of some of the nation's most astute political watchers, including Paul Beck, who studies and teaches political psychology at The Ohio State University. "He is willing to take it to the Republicans," Beck says of the president. "That is the course he is taking, (although) I'm not sure it is the course I would suggest."

Why? Beck argues that taking a hard line, partisan stance now, could turn off many of the moderate voters the president needs, because one of the primary messages of his first run was just the opposite. "One of the things he campaigned on in 2008 was that politics has become too polarized."

Others, however, wonder if any other options exist. Political analysts widely agree President Obama cannot merely resurrect the "hope and change" mantra, because voters could well respond with a dismissive "been there, done that, it didn't work."

Jon Krosnick is a professor of communication, political science, and psychology at Stanford University. "Can he be convincing in discrediting Republicans? I don't know. But I don't see how he has any other choice."

I believed in him 100%. I thought it was going to be a big turnaround from President Bush. But now you have to wonder.
Andy Heller, who runs a copy center in Scranton. Pa.

Still, Krosnick points out an important nuance in the president's makeover: "It's not actually clear to me that he needs to be someone else." Rather, Krosnick suggests, Obama's sales pitch to voters can be, in effect, "I'm the same man you believed in, conditions were just tougher than any of us expected. Getting the job done is going to take longer and involve new strategies. And although I still believe in bipartisanship, it doesn't work unless the other side is also on board."

The state of the economy may be the difference

That certainly seems to be the tack the White House is taking in its attempt to escape the sea of disappointment, and it will undeniably be a tricky, long journey. Scranton's Heller does not think he'll vote for a Republican, but ask if he'll vote for Barack Obama again and his response is straightforward. "I'd have to see the economy make a serious change."

Video producer Dennebaum is more pointed. "He seemed like a man with integrity and a very strong desire to make a difference. Now he's president in name only. That's what it seems like." Will Dennebaum vote for him next fall? "I don't know."

And there is the president's challenge.

Somehow he must not only run against his Republican challenger, but also against his past image, the one that so many voters believed in, and the one that let them down so hard. In critical states like Pennsylvania, he must persuade them to move beyond their disappointment, or he may risk a great and grave disappointment of his own.

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