President Obama has made it quite clear that he has one goal, and only one goal, on his mind: Getting re-elected. It seems therefore appropriate to give a look at his chances, and his problems.
First, a look back at 2008. Barack Obama and Joe Biden teamed up to beat John McCain and Sarah Palin, 365 electoral votes to 173 and 66.86 million votes to 58.32 million. In other words, Obama claimed 95 electoral votes more than he needed to win, and enjoyed a popular margin of eight and a half million votes. Reasons for the win depend on who you ask, but common responses point out the novelty of Obama’s run as a black candidate, McCain’s lack of charisma and eloquence, the declining public image of the Bush Administration, worry over the economy, and conservatives abandoning the GOP. It produced a perfect storm for Obama, which raises the obvious question about whether he can work such magic again.
First, the factors which work for Obama. There has been some discussion about a possible fight for Obama to claim the Democrats’ nomination in 2012 if he gets into public trouble, but it’s not very likely to work out that way. The media, for example, has been very much a pal to President Obama; his ‘honeymoon’ has lasted throughout his first term with every indication that the major networks and press will continue to act as lackeys for him for the foreseeable future. To change support for a different candidate would require these networks to abandon Obama while he remains in office, an unlikely prospect. Further, there is the historical record. No president running for re-election has failed to claim his party nomination since LBJ in 1968 (and no incumbent party has nominated a candidate who was neither the sitting president nor vice-president since 1952). It’s reasonable to say on just these two points alone, that if Barack Obama is not nominated by the Democrats in 2012, then the winner of the 2012 Presidential Election will be the Republican.
The next point to consider is Obama’s Job Approval. Obama’s present approval according to Gallup has dropped to 42 percent, just one point above his worst ever from April this year and October 2010. The thing is, the worst Obama has received is 41 percent approval. Compare that to Bill Clinton, whose approval support in the first seven months of 1995 ranged from 42 percent to 51 percent. Pretty similar, it seems. In any case, the numbers show that despite his abysmal job performance, Obama continues to enjoy enough support that he is very well-positioned to win another term.
The third factor to consider in Obama’s favor is the Republican field. Obama won in 2008 with unintentional help from the Republicans, who spent the bulk of the campaign feuding with each other, which led to a nomination which pleased few and angered many on the Right. One might think the bitter lesson would have been learned, but so far the field for the coming election is behaving much like the 2008 field did, with serious reason to fear a similar outcome.
Put these three factors together, and you have a problem for Republicans, and given how he has performed, for the nation. Fortunately, there are also a number of strong reasons why Barack Obama will have a hard time winning re-election.
First and foremost is Obama’s record. Since 1916, seven of the last ten presidents to seek re-election won their contest, but the three who lost (Hoover in 1932, Carter in 1980, and GHW Bush in 1992) all lost because of the economy. In a word, Jobs. If unemployment is high, the incumbent is in trouble. And that problem is especially bad for Mr. Obama, whose policies have pretty much done nothing but make things worse for the economy. Obama inherited an unemployment rate of 7.8% but has averaged 9.4% since taking office; the rate has not been below nine percent since May of 2009. Despite his attempts to blame Bush for the problem, Obama owns this record. What’s worse for Obama, his pet programs target employment at most public corporations, so Obama can effectively reduce unemployment only by abandoning his signature policies.
The second problem for Obama is the polling. Frank Newport of Gallup observed Presidents who have a 48 percent or better approval tend to win re-election, while those below do not. In that context, his present 42-43 percent approval levels are a warning to Obama that he is in trouble. Worse for Obama, he’s been able to get bumps only for short periods of time no matter what he says or does; not very much like Clinton after all, perhaps. Especially since Bill Clinton understood that his political survival depended on the economy improving, something Obama shows no sign of grasping. While it’s certainly believable that Obama could find a way to bring his approval up a few points to reach that tipping point, the clear momentum is working against him, and if he drops below 40 percent as he seems to be headed now, then time will become an implacable enemy.
The third problem for Obama is, well, Obama. He ran on a lot of promises in 2008, casting himself essentially as a non-partisan visionary and peacemaker. It’s more than plain by now that the real Barack Obama is a thin-skinned paranoid narcissist with delusions of competency; he wavers between indecision and bad judgment, all the while complaining that he doesn’t get enough credit and admiration. On the one hand, it may be observed that Obama has fired up conservatives to get back into the national debate again, although some may argue that Obama should not waste time thinking about people he cannot win over anyway; but on the other, Obama has also outraged many on the Left with his broken promises regarding Guantanamo, Iraq, and other liberal demands. While as President of the United States Barack Obama holds tremendous power and influence, his habit of making enemies so readily means that if pressed into desperation, he has few allies who will come to his aid unless they gain from the action themselves; no one supports a tyrant out of agreement with his character.
Obama’s next problem is the Tea Party. Political movements spring up all the time, but officials would do well to note those which genuinely start at the grassroots, and which focus on only one or a few key issues, because those don’t go away without making changes in the landscape … and in politicians who refuse to notice the change in reality. The Tea Party was a significant force in the 2010 midterm elections, and ignoring them is just plain foolish. Dismissing the Tea Party’s significance can be a bad idea, in battleground states where concerns about federal spending and accountability influence not only votes but the debates of the election. This does not mean that Obama will lose because the Tea Party does not like him, but his ignorance of the movement’s identity and influence could damage his campaign in several states.
The next problem, and the big one, is the Republican nominee. Obama had an easy time beating John McCain in 2008, but it’s very unlikely the GOP will nominate someone that weak this time. In 2008 conservatives were disillusioned and bitter, producing no significant candidates and contributing little to the campaign. The main body of republican voters this time is more conservative and active, and they are also better-focused. Guys who talk but can’t deliver (like Thompson), or ‘centrist’ republicans eager to give in to democrats in order to ‘get along’ (like McCain) will find the going harder than last time. This does not give the inside track to image-first candidates with weak resumes (Bachman or Palin), but builds a stage for experienced leaders who understand what will really work. While this will mean the republican nominee won’t emerge for a while yet, when he does it will be someone the voters can identify by values and commitment, and he will be a sharp contrast with President Superficial.
How it shakes out, is in the math. There’s no doubt that Obama has lost a lot of support, and in all likelihood will be less compelling in 2012 than he was in 2008. But having 95 more electoral votes than he needed in 2008 means that even a weakened Obama could still win. The question is just how many of the states will swing away from Obama to the republican. In 2008, Obama won DC and 29 states, but if his support falls by just three points he loses five states, and if he drops by five points he loses eleven states.You may choose to disagree, but unless the republicans thoroughly destroy their chances, they’re looking at their best opportunity to rout the democrats in a presidential election by the largest margin since Reagan’s win in 1984.