Obama's Unplayed Trump Card

The latest Washington Post / ABC poll should gladden Barack Obama's heart. In what Mitt Romney calls the battle for America's soul -- "What do you think is the bigger problem in this country, unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy OR over-regulation of the free market that interferes with prosperity?" -- 55% choose Obama's focus on unfairness against only 37% for the Republican over-regulation argument. 54% blame George W. Bush most for our economic woes, while only 29% pin it most on Obama. And only 30% say they are personally worse off than when Obama took office.

Yet in the very same poll, in a head-to-head matchup, Romney defeats Obama, 48-46. How to explain it?

Let's start with two basic axioms of American politics. One, attributed to Bill Clinton, says that when Americans are uncertain, they'd rather have a leader who is wrong but strong than one who is right but weak. The other comes from Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg: "In a political campaign, a narrative is the key to everything."

Mitt Romney has already laid out a clear, simple narrative that makes him the champion of all who are strong, even if wrong, and makes Obama both personally weak and the champion of the weak.

Obama has lost the fight against unemployment, Romney insists, and he's quickly losing the nation's solvency. Why? Because he's shackling the strong, independent capitalists -- uh, I mean "job producers" -- who could make the nation rich again, if only they were left free to pursue their individual success. But Obama would transfer their wealth to weaklings who can't make it on their own, who would rather whine in envy than go out and make something of themselves.

It's the same story on the global front: While enemies like China and Iran build up their forces, Obama just talks to them softly, with no big stick in sight. Why he's even starting negotiations with the Taliban.

Never mind that Romney's own aides have supported talking to the Taliban. Facts are not the issue here, whether it's foreign affairs or the economy (where Obama actually has a fairly impressive job creation record). A narrative about strength is what counts.

What narrative can Obama craft to fight back? The latest buzz is Andrew Sullivan's sweeping tribute to Obama's "long game." The WaPo's Ezra Klein calls it precisely the winning case that the Democrats should be making. It is indeed an impressive catalog of facts, setting the Obama record straight.

But political psychologists like George Lakoff and Drew Westen would say to the Dems, "There you go again," thinking that a laundry list of true facts and popular policies can win elections. Sorry folks. The only way to beat a narrative that looks strong but wrong is with a narrative that looks strong and right (morally right, not conservative right-wing).

When it comes to foreign policy, the president has created strong images of defeating Al Qaeda, getting tough international sanctions on Iran, and beefing up the Pacific fleet to check China. His problem is the economy, stupid. There, the polls suggest, most voters will think his call for more equity is right. He just has to make it look strong.

The last president who pulled this off masterfully was Theodore Roosevelt -- as Obama must know, since he went to Osawatomie, Kansas, to offer himself as a reincarnation of TR.

Obama got part of the narrative right: TR's attack on "a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power"; his call for stricter laws to curb that power, so that every American would have "a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies"; his appeal to cooperation over competition, because "in the long run, we shall go up or down together."

That sounds morally right to most Americans today, if we can believe the polls. But it can't sound like strength in a nation so steeped in the tradition of the Rough Riders and Reaganite (now Romneyite) rugged individualism.

The current president's mistake was to use TR's words to endorse what Obama called "the promise that's at the very heart of America: ... Work hard and you can get into the middle class." For Obama, the bottom line is individual economic advantage.

Roosevelt rejected that view. At Osawatomie he said that his New Nationalism put "the national need before personal advantage." The fundamental reason to curb the excesses of the rich was so that every person could "make the greatest possible contribution to the public welfare," not their own bank account. "The true friend of property," he proclaimed, "the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth."

TR called this "character": a will strong enough to restrain one's selfish material desires in order to promote the greater good. He praised strength of character as "the most important element in any man's career." His main message at Osawatomie was a call for "a genuine and permanent moral awakening" to replace the moral weakness of greed with the power of self-restraint.

That might sound corny to those of us raised on '60s radicalism. But there aren't that many of us. If Obama focused like a laser on the moral strength it takes to curb the excesses of greed and selfishness, he'd find a ready audience across the political spectrum -- even in evangelical Christian circles, where the so-called "social issues" have so much purchase because they are code names for an ethic of self-control. Those particular issues are slowly losing their punch, as Romney's success shows. But the demand to demonstrate self-restraint in one way or another remains. Moderates and many liberals share that basic value. They just want to see it played out most in the economic arena.

Obama's trump card is a simple message, making moral right look strong: We measure a nation's strength by its strength of character. America is the strongest nation on earth because so many of us have the inner strength to curb our selfish, greedy impulses and care about our neighbors. We know that's how to make the strongest nation even stronger. Now it's time for the top one per cent, who haven't yet shown that strength of character, to start living like true, strong Americans.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.