Three Ways Obama Can Defeat the Tea Party


By his own admission, President Barack Obama and Democrats took a “shellacking” in the 2010 congressional midterms. After losing control of both the Senate and the House in 2006, the GOP came roaring back with sizeable gains, fueled in large party by electrified Tea Party bolstering. Obama has some options on the table if he is to defeat the Tea Party in 2012, and he would do well to observe three critical strategies: re-harness his 2008 energy, stop capitulating to the GOP, and highlight his successes.

There are signs that the Tea Party’s influence and popularity is on the decline. As early as midsummer, public opinion had already turned sharply against the once potent group. According to a July CNN opinion poll, 51% of respondents believed Republicans — shackled then, as they are now, by the non-negotiating Tea Party faction — would be most at fault if the debt ceiling were not raised, compared to just 30% who would blame Obama. The dominance of GOP frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry over such Tea Party favorites as Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul suggests that Tea Party ideology is largely unpalatable for the mainstream voter.

Yet the Tea Party’s seeming decline in recent months by no means eliminates it as a formidable force leading up to the 2012 election. Obama, in seeking a second term, must do three things in order to counter Tea Party pressure:

1. Re-harness the energy of 2008. Obama's 2008 campaign relied on grassroots support, small donations, and the energy of a new generation of youthful, impassioned activists. If Obama hopes to overcome blistering Tea Party vitriol, he must return to his roots and reorient himself back to the position that resonated with so many American voters: that of the political outsider, the idealistic crusader, and the hip politician savvy enough to use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to his advantage.

2. Stop capitulating. Obama has historically been a supremely calm and appeasing individual capable of successfully and civilly seeking compromise across the aisle. As Fred Greenstein notes in his article, Obama has a “conciliatory leadership style he has often evinced in politics.” However, it is no secret that his political base is unhappy with some of his most recent decisions, not the least of which include extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, ceding significant ground on the debt ceiling debate, and considering the TransCanada pipeline. Obama's conciliatory nature has served him well in the past, but his new moderation is largely the result of mid-term congressional losses. Obama’s die-hard supporters want to see him take a more aggressive stand on fundamental Democratic issues now that much of the political backlash seems to be evaporating. 

The jobs speech this month was a strong start. In classic style, Obama appealed for bipartisan support yet delivered his proposals in such a way to underscore both his refusal to avoid the issue altogether and his cognizance of the importance of garnering those waning far-left supporters. As he begins his cross-country tour promoting his jobs plan, Politico notes that Obama has “twin goals in Richmond and elsewhere: Convince Republicans he’s not only relevant, but still a dangerous political enemy, while selling the jaded Democratic base on his progressive credentials and political toughness.”

3. Highlight his successes. Nearly three years into his presidency, Obama has accomplished a great deal, and America needs to be reminded of his successes if he is to check Tea Party pressure. Emphasizing the successes of his foreign policy — from the respect he receives from our European allies to the vindicating events that were the victory in Libya and the death of Osama bin Laden — is critical. And he must champion his other major victories, including ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, renewing START negotiations with Russia, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform, TARP, Obamacare, and even broader ideological stances on promoting transparency in government and appealing to historically marginalized groups.

These tactics are essential to defeating the Tea Party in 2012. Observing them will help him to defeat other political enemies, whoever they are.

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