Barack Obama probably will have to pull out a familiar card next year: the luck of the draw.
In winning the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the president defeated political heavyweights, starting with Hillary Clinton. His other triumphs were facilitated by lots of luck.
In his 2004 race for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, the candidacies of both his chief primary opponent and initial Republican rival collapsed when divorce papers were disclosed during the campaign; one was accused of violent behavior and the other of kinky sex. In that year’s general election, his Republican opponent, by process of elimination, was Alan Keyes, a fringe figure who wasn’t even a resident of the state.
In the 2008 general election, Obama faced Senator John McCain of Arizona, an American icon on questions of national security and a political reformer who had little interest in economic issues. In an election dominated by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, this was a problem.
To many, that economy seems worse today, which is why a segment of the conventional wisdom holds that the president is unlikely to be re-elected, or in any case can’t command 50 percent of the vote. The jobless rate is 8.6 percent, chronic unemployment is the worst since the 1930s, and a huge majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
The best indicator, Obama re-election doubters say, is the president’s own job approval, now hovering around 46 percent, though several new polls have him inching upward. By the end of 1979, Jimmy Carter had gotten a bounce because of a rally around the president after Americans were taken hostage in Iran; within four months he was back down in the 30s. Obama is doing better than George H.W. Bush at this stage and not as well as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
He’s in a danger zone. Presidential candidates usually capture a percentage of the vote that is about the same as their approval rating. In 2004, George W. Bush’s share of the vote was about equal to his job approval number right before the election; Clinton, in 1996, and George H.W. Bush, in 1992, were about within that margin of error. That suggests Obama is in trouble in a two-person race.
Yet there’s another indicator that gets less notice: the status of the challenging party. The last four times an insurgent party has captured the presidency -- 1980, 1992, 2000 and 2008 -- it had a positive approval rating a year before Election Day that usually was better than the incumbent party’s.
The 1980 contest was about Carter’s performance. The congressional Republicans, however, offered rational conservative alternatives for their nominee to run on. After the Cold War ended, during the first Bush presidency, Democrats seized the initiative on the economy and health care.
In 1999, both the Republicans and Democrats had about 50 percent approval. By the following fall, they remained about even and the presidential race that year was a tie, with George W. Bush winning a controversial victory. Four years ago, the Democrats had a 54 percent approval rating, with 30 percent disapproval; the Republicans got a clear negative from the electorate that held for the next year. Obama easily won the election.
Today, a plethora of polls shows both parties are held in low regard by the electorate, but the Republicans consistently do worse. They have been on a steady decline throughout this year. The explanation Republican politicians give for this slide is instructive. National politicos say congressional Republicans are to blame; on Capitol Hill, there’s a lot of finger-pointing at the presidential candidates.
Tea Party Overreach
The public, polls show, resents an overreach by Tea Party Republicans this year. Especially damaging was the brinkmanship on the debt ceiling, which seemed to indicate a willingness to let the U.S. government default on its obligations. Currently, even some conservatives are stunned at how the inept House Republicans allowed Obama to run circles around them on the payroll tax cut, forcing them to capitulate.
From a congressional perspective, it’s the debates among the presidential candidates that are the culprit. Asked about the decline in the party’s image, Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the “brand-name of Republican is drawing a lot of attention and focus because of the presidential candidates.”
Republicans, acknowledging these shortcomings, reply in essence that it doesn’t matter; re-elections are always about the incumbent.
History suggests that is a bit of an exaggeration. Curiously, that case may be best illustrated by two elections in which incumbent presidents were defeated, Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Taking a Chance
Prior to the election of Reagan, congressional Republicans had laid the foundation for a national campaign, pushing the Kemp-Roth across-the-board tax cuts and making the case that the Carter administration was weak on national security.
Yet even a few weeks before that November election the outcome was in doubt; Reagan and his party had to convince dissatisfied voters it was worth taking a chance on them.
In 1992, the desire for change was as palpable. Yet it wasn’t easy for Clinton to pull away until the closing week of the campaign.
This time around, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the likely 2012 Republican nominee, has strengths, but he’s not the gifted politician that Reagan and Clinton were and his party certainly hasn’t established a positive predicate for him to run on in a change election.
Obama has considerable challenges. People who’ve met with him privately suggest he evokes little of the “fierce urgency of now.” The White House staff seems spent, their message is confusing and contradictory. They brought in an able chief of staff, Bill Daley, and then tried to cut him off at the knees.
Yet the Obama campaign remains first class when it comes to mechanics and money. They will be better organized and have more resources. And they are likely to have a good target.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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