Can Barack Obama run on 'morning in America'?

OPINION - Could Barack Obama successfully channel Ronald Reagan, circa 1984?...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Fresh off his victory in the Florida primary, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney says Tuesday’s contest was just a warmup for what he says will be the “most vitriolic, spiteful campaign in American history,” waged by what he called “Barack Obama’s billion-dollar machine.”

Romney ought to know.

An analysis of the Florida primary found that 92 percent of the ads that ran incessantly in the sunshine state were negative, with the Romney campaign and its friendly Super PAC, Restore our Future, outspending Newt Gingrich and his PAC $15.4 million to $3.7 million. By percentage, 68 percent of the TV ads were attacks on Gingrich, 23 percent attacked Romney, just 9 percent were favorable toward Gingrich and less than 0.1 percent praised Romney.

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If Romney runs the same strategy in the general election, and the Obama re-election effort responds in kind, Mitt’s right: we’re in for one ugly campaign.

But that assumes Team Obama will take the bait. Already, the campaign is steering donors away from two friendly super-PACs and raking up donations direct to the campaign, ostensibly to assert more control over the campaign message. That means the president, who enjoys solid personal approval and “likeability” ratings, will be more personally accountable for the message, which may give the campaign team pause about going too nuclear on their opponent.

Of course, unions and other outside groups friendly to the incumbent will run plenty of ads nationwide, which are certain to include attacks on Romney (presuming he is the nominee) for his seeming detachment from middle class Americans, his time at Bain Capital and the outsourcing of jobs, and of course, his history of flip-flops.

But so far, it appears the Obama team also plans to take advantage of both Romney’s obvious flaws as a candidate, and the positive ground the GOP, with its need to placate its angriest supporters, has ceded to the president: the time honored campaign theme of optimism.

The president’s State of the Union speech, which offers the clearest preview of the coming campaign message, focused on the twofold theme of seeking a “fair shake” for the middle class, and betting on the American economy and workers. That’s a populist theme that sounds like it could have been ripped from the playbook of another incumbent president who ran for re-election facing economic headwinds: Ronald Reagan.

But could Barack Obama successfully channel Reagan, circa 1984?

“The excessively negative campaign in Florida had two major impacts,” said Steve Schale, who ran the 2008 Barack Obama Florida campaign. “it drove down turnout and drove up the negative opinion of swing voters toward the GOP candidates. While the Republicans race to find new depths to the gutter, the president’s optimistic vision for America’s greatness will find a lot of receptive ears among the kind of everyday families who decide elections.”

Indeed, optimism has been a powerful weapon in the hands of incumbent presidents and challengers alike. Bill Clinton in 1992 ran against the economy as presided over by George H.W. Bush (remember “it’s the economy, stupid?”) But his actual theme: “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” gave weary American voters the opportunity to vote in the affirmative, rather than simply against the incumbent. It didn’t hurt that the angriest voters were siphoned off into the insurgent Ross Perot third party campaign. But Clinton’s sunny optimism and appeal to younger voters was a winner.

For Reagan, defeating an incumbent at a time of economic weakness was a matter of asking votes in 1976, “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” With Carter unable to summon much beyond grimacing advice for Americans to put on sweaters to save electricity, Reagan’s message stuck.

When it came time for his own re-election, Reagan faced the aftermath of the 1982 recession, which saw unemployment peak at 10.8 percent — not unlike the Great Recession of 2007. By November 1982, unemployment had dropped to 7.2 percent, making Reagan’s “morning in America” theme much more potent than what he’d tried during the 1982 midterms: “stay the course.”

The jobless rate currently stands at 8.5 percent; slightly higher than the 7.8 percent figure in February 1984. And there is evidence that Americans are beginning to turn the corner on the pessimism and anger that characterized the midterm elections of 2010.

Polls since December have shown a slowly growing optimism about the economy, upticks in such measures as the financial security index, and that’s translating into improved poll numbers for President Obama, who also continues to poll well against the current GOP field.

If unemployment continues to fall, say, to 8 percent or below by Election Day, Obama could make a case for “morning,” or at least an early dawn, in America. And Team Obama will surely continue to point to the so-called “bikini graph,” which shows the stark shift from staggering job losses as George W. Bush exited the White House, to job growth (in blue) during the first three years of Obama.

For the Obama campaign, the challenge will be to balance an optimistic message with the populist themes that have resonated with Americans in polling since last fall: that income inequality and the special tax breaks given to the rich are unfair to the middle class — with a “can do” theme that appeals to moderates, independents, and those who don’t believe that all in America is lost.

And they’ll have to keep in mind that for many parts of their base, including African-Americans, Hispanics, returning war veterans and young voters, the economy continues to be very tough, unemployment remains unacceptably high, and morning seems a long way off indeed. (In December for white Americans, the unemployment rate is at around 7.1 percent for white men and even lower, at 6.8 percent, for white women. In other words, the president’s message may be received differently by different audiences, who have varying reasons for lending, or withholding support from him, that may or may or may not be all about the economy.)

But if the Republican campaign remains mired in negativity; and if the GOP candidate can’t find a positive reason why Americans should elect them (hating Obama is not enough..) they risk ceding the Reaganite ground to the incumbent. And the Obama team will surely, eagerly, seize it.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport