By MARSHA MERCER
Over the holidays, one of my dearest Republican relatives said, “Well, it’s too bad Obama turned out to be such a socialist.”
Then, she added in a tone between sadness and sarcasm, “I’m sure most people wouldn’t have voted for him if they’d known that.”
What? I paused to process her calm declaration and realized that what I hear -- and discount -- as political potshots in a presidential campaign have become in the ears of some voters reliable truth.
That surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. The old saying that “the first casualty of war is truth” also applies to political warfare.
The barrage against President Barack Obama started before he took office and has continued nonstop. Obama’s decision largely to ignore the charges just allows them to fester.
Newt Gingrich’s latest attacks on Obama as “the greatest food-stamp president in American history” are classic. Gingrich portrays Obama as socialist in chief, and Obama refuses to knock down the notion that he favors encouraging dependency on the state.
No wonder that 10 months before the election, half the voters surveyed in the latest New York Times and CBS News poll said Obama doesn’t have the same priorities for the country that they do.
The economy remains the country’s No. 1 issue, and 60 percent think Obama has done nothing to improve it. Most Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.
And, confirming my holiday conversation, the poll also found that better than one in four voters -- 26 percent -- believe Obama’s policies are socialist. Twenty-two percent say his policies are liberal and 28 percent moderate.
If you’ve listened to the Republican presidential contenders sniping at each other, you know it’s now a supreme knock to call someone running for president a moderate.
Despite all this, polls consistently find that Obama would beat all the Republican presidential hopefuls -- except one. He ties with Mitt Romney, who’s most likely to be his rival in November.
And here’s where it gets really interesting. Obama ties with Romney even though most voters say they lack a clear idea about what Obama wants to accomplish in a second term.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama will outline his policy goals for the coming year, but implicit will be his plans for a second term. Hoping to rekindle the sparks of 2008, he’ll appeal to the middle class and ally himself with the 99 percent.
It’s a tough sell for a president who seems more professorial than populist. But the best thing Obama has going for him is the contrast with Romney, whose comments this week that he probably paid a 15 personal tax rate set him even farther apart from ordinary people than Obama.
For whatever reason, Obama has been reluctant to mention poverty, even as the ranks of the poor expand. He could use his primetime speech to explain why everyone benefits from a strong safety net. He could tell about policy changes in the George W. Bush presidency that led to increases in the food stamp rolls and trace how the economic slump intensified need. He could call on the Republicans to help, rather than demonize, the poor.
In 2008, voters were willing to buy the promise of hope and change. When Caroline Kennedy endorsed Obama in an op-ed in the Times on Jan. 27, 2008, she wrote:
“I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.”
That’s still a good job description for president in 2012.
Ms. Kennedy also wrote that Obama would inspire in people “a sense of possibility” that they have the power to shape their own future. It hasn’t worked out that way. Yet.
To shape his own future, Obama needs to inspire a new sense of individual possibility, not imply dependency that his enemies will call socialism.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.