While GOP candidates are bent on detracting from Obama's term, his position actually improves

By Thomas Fitzgerald

McClatchy

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 12:24 a.m. MST

In this Feb. 1, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in Falls Church, Va.

Susan Walsh, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

PHILADELPHIA — For months, Republicans fighting for their party's nomination have dominated the political discussion with a grim narrative of American decline: a sluggish economy worsened by a Democratic president bent on creating a European-style social-welfare state on this side of the Atlantic, with a naive foreign policy and an animus toward traditional values.

But while Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul — the last four Republicans standing in the race for the White House — continue pushing one another to the right in a quest to lock down the conservative base and the win, President Barack Obama has crept back into his strongest position in months.

Several of the latest polls show Obama's job-approval rating at the crucial 50 percent benchmark and give him leads in head-to-head matchups with his likely GOP opponents.

Jobs have grown for several consecutive months, consumer confidence is up, and so is the stock market. Even General Motors Co., rescued by a much-criticized government bailout, is turning a profit and adding shifts. At the end of the past week, Obama won a rare victory in Congress as Republicans agreed to an extension of a payroll-tax cut.

On the foreign-policy front, the war in Afghanistan is winding down and Obama can claim credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden and the thinning of the ranks of al-Qaida leadership.

To be sure, Obama's standing remains precarious, with fallout from Europe's financial crisis and the possibility of armed confrontation between Israel and Iran over Iranian nuclear ambitions just two of the variables that could change things instantly. And at some point, Republicans will unite around a nominee.

Yet the chief dynamic of the 2012 campaign — an incumbent facing one of the worst re-election environments in history — may have to be reconsidered, at least for now, analysts and strategists say.

"It's not a close call — there's been a dramatic movement up," argued Democratic consultant Saul Shorr. "People are more optimistic about the economy, and that's happening at the same time they're watching a circus that is disconnected from their lives on the Republican side — 'The Three Stooges.' "

Indeed, as the GOP battle drags on, most national polls find negative views of all the candidates increasing. (It's a common result, and the purpose, of negative ads and campaign contrasts.) Romney's favorable rating, in particular, has dropped sharply among the independent and moderate voters important to winning general elections.

While the Republicans are on the main stage, Obama's re-election campaign has been busy. It has raised more than $150 million and spent a little less than half that building the mechanisms of mobilization that could turn a close election, starting with a massive database of persuadable voters.

Obama has also grabbed opportunities to reassure key elements of the Democratic base. He recently refused permission for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, cheering environmentalists; pushed for more federal student loans and lower college tuition, issues popular with the young voters who were vital to his 2008 election; and has taken a more confrontational approach toward GOP leaders in Congress.

More broadly, Obama has laid out a core "fairness" message on the economy, aimed at the middle class, that calls for increased taxes on the wealthy. Advisers believe the message will resonate beyond the Democratic base, appealing to independents and working-class voters who have supported Republicans.

The president started with this populist theme in several big speeches last year, hit it hard in his January State of the Union address, and has stayed on it.

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