Barack Obama ran on hope in 2008 - this time he's running on fear. Photo: AP
So how much trouble is Barack Obama in? Well, it doesn’t get much worse.
His approval rating is hovering just above 40 per cent. Unemployment is stuck at 9.1 per cent; the White House forecast that it would be about 6.5 per cent by now if its economic stimulus plan was passed. Essentially, the American economy is grinding to a halt.
More importantly, what is Obama going to do about it? In terms of policy, the White House has run out of whatever ideas it ever had.
Obama, who declined even to comment on the latest jobless figures on Friday, is like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Having squandered the first two years of his presidency ramming through a healthcare reform that could not win the support of a single Republican on Capitol Hill and is now mired in the courts, he finds himself confronting a divided Congress.
So the only thing that matters to the people around Obama, who are eager for another four years of employment, is his re-election. I’ve long thought that Obama himself is lukewarm about continuing in a job where the adulation he is used to is in short supply. For Democratic powerbrokers, however, maintaining their grasp of the White House is everything.
That was what last week’s debacle over Obama’s forthcoming speech to Congress was about. Obama knows that since the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in last November’s Tea Party wave, there has been no chance of passing bipartisan legislation.
His request to speak on Wednesday night at the exact moment the Republicans vying to replace him were due to debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California was a blatant, if botched, political power play.
White House aides seemed to think that Republicans would meekly allow him to eclipse the debate or appear petty and partisan by rebuffing him. In fact, Washington’s political establishment immediately recognised that the breach in protocol was by Obama, not John Boehner, the House Speaker, and the White House swiftly climbed down and agreed to Thursday.
The rhetoric afterwards gave a foretaste of the scorched earth re-election campaign Obama will run. While Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, gave an impression of a choirboy who would not let butter melt in his mouth, the hardball anonymous briefings were taking place.
According to Carney, the White House was “not interested in sort of inside-the-beltway political gamesmanship” and the furore over the speech date was “irrelevant… small stuff”, the very discussion of which sullied the high-minded Obama’s attempts to get things done. It was “coincidental” that the evening Obama had initially wanted would clash with the Republican debate.
But an unnamed White House adviser told the veteran columnist Roger Simon that Team Obama knew full well that the speech would be at the same time as the debate. Boehner, he briefed, had agreed with the timing (Boehner flatly denies this) but had then been berated by Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host, and Tea Party members of Congress.
Under this pressure, the White House adviser alleged, Boehner changed his mind. “This was a political thing, a Tea Party thing, a Rush Limbaugh thing.”
It fits with the campaign strategy Obama appears to have decided on – portray Republican leaders as prisoners of the racist, Right-wing nutters from the Tea Party. They’re to blame, the argument goes, for the gridlock in Washington because of their intransigence in the face of nice, reasonable Obama.
The problem is that every smear and insult possible was thrown at the Tea Party in last year’s mid-term elections but the grassroots movement still drove an historic Republican victory. It is also an obvious attempt to change the subject, moving discussion away from the economy by fixating on alleged racism or religious fundamentalism on the Right.
Such a strategy also sits uneasily with the one that brought Obama victory in 2008. It highlights his broken promise to usher in a new era of bipartisanship by fixing a government that was broken. Then, Obama was an outsider running against Washington.
Now, he intends to be an insider trying to be an outsider running against Congress, even though Democrats controlled both houses of it until last year and are still the majority in the Senate.
Certainly, attacking the other side can bring victory. Arguably, that’s what President George W. Bush achieved against John Kerry in 2004. Obama’s aides may well have calculated that it is the only way he can win a second term.
But the risks are high. Obama seems to intend to urge Americans that he be allowed to stay in the White House to prevent Republican extremists taking over the entire government. The candidate of hope and change in 2008 is fast becoming the candidate of fear and the status quo this time around.
Toby Harnden’s American Way column is published in The Sunday Telegraph each week.