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The Obama conundrum

Why is it that North Carolinians continue to voice frustration with President Obama and yet, at the same time, express a willingness to give him a second term in office [1]? Aside from the utter moral, political and intellectual vacuity of the Republican challengers, it’s this:

Most North Carolinians want Obama to be Obama – or, at least, the Obama they perceived him to be in 2008 – and they think he can still get there.

Ironically, Obama’s struggles in purple North Carolina are not the result of him being too progressive; they are the result of him being too moderate.

Most North Carolina voters (like most of their fellow Americans) are not policy wonks. What they crave most of all is a President who will be strong and forceful; someone who will stake out a clear, coherent position, fight for it and lead. Witness the overwhelming support for taxing the rich at a fairer rate [2] and attacking our national economic inequality.

While the ability to govern is critical – see today’s Weekly Briefing [3] on the botched performance of North Carolina legislative leaders – pragmatic governance and the forceful and consistent use of the bully pulpit are not mutually exclusive.

Think about it this way: The single biggest factor affecting the popularity of all present-day politicians is the struggling economy. Had the Obama team been able to secure the kind of massive recovery package that was truly necessary back in 2009, things would likely be perking along now in decent shape and the President would be a shoe-in for reelection.

Unfortunately, a combination of new-President timidity and right-wing obstructionism made this impossible. Instead, we got a partial recovery package – one that averted depression but that lacked the requisite oomph to get the economy fully up to speed.

Okay, so that’s where we are. What now?  

For Obama the choice is clear: He can govern from some, gray, mushy Harry Reid-land and run as the champion of moderate, half measures, or he can speak forcefully and passionately for big ideas and big changes that average people can grasp. Ideas such as those now championed by the Occupy Wall Street movement: Corporations are not people; taxes on the rich are too low; fat cat corruption is unacceptable. In other words, the ideas that he seemed to champion in 2008.

Will the Tea Partiers scream? Sure. But so what? They’ll never be assuaged. They called Obama a leftist even as he was slashing taxes and launching new foreign military adventures.

To win over the critical middle – the independents that will make or break the 2012 election – the best thing the President can do is to be the man folks thought they were electing in 2008: a passionate and forceful voice for populist change.

Not only will this be the best way to get reelected, it might even win him a mandate to get something done.