Obama and Wedge Issues

Ten of twelve states that most polls consider to be in play this year are states that Obama carried in 2008. Those would be Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and New Hampshire. The two toss-ups that McCain won are Missouri and Arizona. So Obama needs to run most of the table in order to win reelection.

With the economic recovery plainly slowing, Obama is barely running even with Mitt Romney, a candidate neither beloved by the Republican base nor trusted by most women voters, and a politician given to foot-in-mouth disease whenever he is off script. As "Michael Dukakis" (as played by Jon Lovitz) famously said on Saturday Night Live in 1988 of George H.W. Bush's inept campaign, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." But lose he did, and Obama could lose to a candidate as inept as Romney.

Obama's problems run deeper than the soft recovery. To understand why, it's helpful to take a close look at something he did right -- his deft policy of suspending deportations of undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children.

This policy shift, and his recent speech to the National Association of Latin Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), were pitch-perfect.

In terms of campaign tactics, Obama's move is a prime example of what's known as exploiting a wedge issue -- one that divides the opposition party and exposes its vulnerabilities. Most voters view the Republican position on deporting young people who grew up here and consider themselves Americans to be harsh and stupid. Obama's move flummoxed the Republican Party into a week of rare silence, left Romney to speak gibberish to the NALEO meeting, and intensified support for Obama among Latinos without an offsetting backlash among Anglos.

Obama's reluctant and belated acceptance of same-sex marriage accomplished something similar. Here public opinion remains closely divided, but is unmistakably moving in the direction of greater tolerance, especially among independent voters. Once again, the Republican capture by the hard right is revealed, and Romney is put in a usefully awkward position.

The question, however, is why Obama waited so long, and why he doesn't pursue other areas where the Republican position is far to the right of public opinion. The answer seems to be a combination of Obama's own innate caution, and the obsessively tactical, "test-everything" orientation of his campaign strategists.

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