How Much Trouble Is Obama Really In?

Republican strategist Karen Hughes and Democratic pollster Mark Penn in their bi-weekly faceoff about Election 2012

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Penn: Obama is resilient. He proved in 2008 that he knows how to size up a tough spot and come out swinging. This time around he is facing another rough patch, only now he has to come out swinging for the swing voter.

Obama has to distance himself from the Republican right by occupying the center and rebuilding the coalition he had just a few years ago when he brought together those in the lowest and highest income classes — in 2008, he won the lion’s share of everyone making under $35,000 and got a remarkable half of the 26% of the voters whose households make over $100,000. Never before have so many voters fallen into that category and never before had so many of them voted Democratic. He has to keep his coalition together with a second-term agenda that unites them rather than divides them.

Obama’s ratings are hovering around 40%, a big drop from the lofty levels of two years ago, but he certainly could come back from here, as others have. He needs to get near 50% to tip the odds back in his favor. Given tough economic conditions, the best alternative is a relentless drive to show how his presidency is making a difference every day in the lives of average Americans.

While the Republicans tie themselves up in knots in their primary season and continue to be led by the Tea Party, their ratings are sinking lower and lower. National frustration is building and although the voters have real concerns about the President, few think the Republicans have a better idea. On issue after issue, the voters prefer the Democratic solution to the Republicans. And that means that there is a lot of hope for less change than the Republicans are counting on and a path to re-election.

(MORE: Why Obama’s Re-election Chances Depend on Europe)

Hughes: To quote an infamous campaign aside, President Obama is in trouble … “big-time.”  As he launches his re-election campaign – far too early – he is undermining the very rationale that made him President in the first place.

Obama was elected not because of ideology, but because of an idea:  the idea that our politics could be higher and better. Together, he promised, “yes we can” bring about change and make our government work more effectively. Three years later, those words seem not only hollow but naïve, and Obama himself is undercutting them with his divisive class warfare and sharp attacks on Republicans.

It didn’t have to be this way. The President could have employed a more traditional Rose Garden strategy, rising above the politics of the moment while his prospective Republican rivals debate each other and compete for media attention. But he chose the road of confrontation, attacking fellow Americans who’ve had the gall to be successful and castigating Republican leaders by name. Every time he does, he lowers himself into the fray and reminds voters of his failure to heal our national dialogue.

At the same time, on the issue of biggest concern to voters, President Obama’s policies have failed to significantly reduce unemployment, create new jobs or boost the weak economy. All three Republicans currently leading in national polls (Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Rick Perry) offer far better experience and more credible messages on creating jobs and economic growth.

The President’s supporters are hoping Republicans will destroy each other during a hotly contested primary, but that is wishful thinking. As President Obama’s own lengthy primary race against Hillary Clinton showed, vigorous debate can make candidates stronger and better prepared for the fall general election.

Can he turn things around by next fall’s election? A year is a lifetime in presidential politics, but my bet is no, he can’t.