-By Peter Wallsten

September 24, 2011- President Obama’s campaign is developing an aggressive new program to expand support from ethnic minority groups and other traditional Democratic voters as his team studies an increasingly narrow path to victory in next year’s reelection effort.

The program, called “Operation Vote,” underscores how the tide has turned for Obama, whose 2008 brand was built on calls to unite “red and blue America.” Then, he presented himself as a politician who could transcend traditional partisan divisions, and many white centrists were drawn to the coalition that helped elect the country’s first black president.

Today, the political realities of a sputtering economy, a more polarized Washington and fast-sinking presidential job approval ratings, particularly among white independents, are forcing the Obama campaign to adjust its tactics.

Operation Vote will function as a large, centralized department in the Chicago campaign office for reaching ethnic, religious and other voter groups. It will coordinate recruitment of an ethnic volunteer base and push out targeted messages online and through the media to groups such as blacks, Hispanics, Jews, women, seniors, young people, gays and Asian Americans.

The campaign this month hired a longtime Jewish political activist as a point person for that community, the first of many such hirings to come this fall as staffers are brought on from each of the target groups.

The move comes as Obama has endured criticism from many liberal activists who charge that he has ceded too much ground in budget battles with Republicans. In recent days, the president has sharpened his partisan tone in public remarks on jobs and the economy, a change that has drawn praise from Democrats worried that flagging enthusiasm among core party voters could hurt Obama’s reelection chances.

And it is complemented by changes at the White House, including the impending hiring of a new Jewish community liaison and the recent promotion of another aide tasked with forging closer ties to black lawmakers, who have accused Obama of shying away from boosting troubled African American communities out of fear of alienating white voters.

“He was an exciting candidate, a fresh face,” said Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D-N.J.), one of Obama’s earliest 2008 backers. “And now he is an experienced president with a lot of maturity and more successes than failures legislatively, but in a divided government [there is] some inevitable disappointment.”

“I don’t agree that the specialness of his candidacy will be absent from this election,” Rothman added. But “the world has changed. The American economy has changed.”



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