As he prepares for re-election, Barack Obama faces a united opposition and a frustrated Democratic base. At every turn, it seems he concedes bit by bit sacred plans in his party's platform. Health care, programs for children and seniors steadily are eroded by John Boehner and his colleagues. Moreover, a relentless assault on unions in Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and Wisconsin are weathered by activists with little or no rhetorical support from the head Democrat, President Obama. Add a foreign policy, and some of his most faithful supporters are stretched in trying to explain away his actions.
However, there might be some rays of hope for Obama. The economy continues to grow and unemployment has shown some signs of abating. Moreover, he has no challenger on the left, as did Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Republican firebrands continue to make the best argument for Democrats for "four more years." He is raising money hand over fist and has already assembled a campaign team led by David Plouffe. Despite their victories, the GOP will be hard-pressed to defeat Obama in 2012.
But if the economy slows or goes into a dreaded "double dip" recession, all prospects for re-election could be lost. In 1947, Harry Truman faced grimmer prospects and yet built the foundations for his upset win in 1948. Led by James Rowe and Clark Clifford, the Truman team, with far less financing than Obama, shaped a winning strategy, and they were helped by Republicans.
Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley law mandating a closed shop or "right to work." Truman vetoed the law and, although overridden by Congress, nevertheless won backed labor who smarted over his April 1946 threat to draft strikes into the army. Wisconsin gives Obama much the same edge if he chooses to exploit Scott Walker's overreach. As well, he could, as did Truman, make an impassioned appeal to preserve the remnants of the New Deal and Great Society. If next year is a hot economic environment, Obama, despite his own clumsiness, might prove unbeatable.
Yet he cannot be passive; he needs to restore a connection to an old constituency long abandoned by Democrats, workers at the most vulnerable end of the economic pyramid or as FDR called them the "forgotten men." For almost 40 years, males have slowly made their way to the Republican Party. Carter was the last Democrat to take that vote in 1976. Blue-collar or low-skilled service workers have been left out while the Democrats have focused on "rights." As their paychecks shrink, these workers vote on other priorities, namely gun rights and family "values." As Democrats have pitched upscale university-educated professionals, this very important group has seen their priorities go unaddressed. No wonder a Donald Trump can garner 17 percent in a poll of Republican voters simply by using the birther issue. Simply filling a vacuum can be good politics.
George Wallace's supporters were 57 percent men in 1968. Lyndon Johnson placed his priorities on the war on poverty, at least at the beginning, and civil rights. He put no emphasis on repealing Taft-Hartly. No wonder Wallace was able to penetrate what once was a solid Democratic constituency. Labor won 1948 for Truman by the Missourian's own admission. Carter and Edward Kennedy opened the door for deregulation of some industries, once more undercutting labor. Bill Clinton simply hid under the tent of consensus. Obama has to do better.
The nation is not simply not made up of that many earnest upper middle-class reformers. Mugwumps in their desire for moral reform, be it civil rights or the environment, leave little for average-working Americans. Simply touting free trade or "the rule of law" is not good enough. Obama needs to champion those groups, as Roosevelt declared in 1932 "at the bottom of the economic pyramid."