Less than six months after he took office, Barack Obama was labeled a "lame duck" president
by a few overeager conservative commentators. Before his first year in the White House was up, some nervous liberals began pronouncing their hero more Jimmy Carter than J.F.K
. Now, independents are apparently casting gimlet eyes at the president. In a recent Gallup Poll
, Obama was losing by 14 points among these swing voters in a 2012 matchup to something called the "generic Republican."
"The real bad news for the White House in the poll is the continued souring of independents on Obama," wrote Mark Hemingway in The Examiner. "It would be very hard to win re-election if that trend continues." True enough, but why should it continue? History is instructive, it is never static, and to those who believe President Obama will be easy pickings when he runs for re-election, I'd just say, "Wanna bet?"
So with no disrespect intended toward Mark Hemingway, or even Jimmy Carter, that human punching bag of ex-presidents, here are six reasons why the person who occupies the White House on Jan. 21, 2013 is most likely to be ... the man who occupies it now.
Reason 1: There is no such beast as a "generic Republican."
To be sure, there will be a GOP presidential nominee, and that person will have a name, a history, a sex, a voting record, and -- unless the Second Coming takes place between now and the GOP convention in the summer of 2012 -- at least some of the normal human frailties. (No, Mitt Romney, despite never having a hair out of place you are not perfect!) In other words, the next Republican nominee will come before the electorate carrying baggage of his own -- or her own – whether that candidate hails from Wasilla, Alaska, or anywhere else in this big wonderful nation of ours.
In the summer of 2005, as he planned his own presidential run, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana told me he knew Hillary Rodham Clinton was a formidable front-runner and that going into New Hampshire against six or seven other Democratic candidates, most of them senators, she was likely to win. After that, the field would winnow rapidly, Bayh believed, until only one other strong contender remained. "Then it will be a binary election," he said, adding that Clinton could certainly lose a two-person race. This is indeed what happened, although it turned out to be a candidate not even on the scene at that early stage, Barack Obama, who pulled it off.
The point here is that in a "binary" general election campaign, voters won't be choosing between Obama and any idealized view of a "generic" Republican. This is important to keep in mind because we are in a politically polarized period in our nation's history. This doesn't mean that nastiness reigns in our political discourse – although polarization tends to lead to incivility -- it means that Democrats must hew to the views of their party's liberal base, as much as Republicans must pass various conservative purity tests. Thus, by the time the Republicans have chosen their standard-bearer, that candidate will almost certainly have staked out policy positions well to the right of the country as a whole. The upshot is that generic Republican numbers in 2010 are higher among independent or moderate voters than a real Republican's would likely be after surviving the cauldron of the primary season.
This is not sheer speculation on my part. That same Gallup Poll on the generic Republican issue put an open-ended question to respondents asking them to name "the leader" of the Republican Party. Officially (and unofficially) there is no designated leader, and this poll bore it out: Mitt Romney came in first at 14 percent; Sarah Palin was second with 11 percent. But neither Romney nor Palin defeat Obama in a mock 2012 matchup
-- at least not so far.
: It might not be a "binary" election, anyhow
. Taking nothing away from the two winning presidential campaigns Bill Clinton ran in 1992 and 1996, each time it was a three-man race -- with Ross Perot being the third wheel. Clinton was clearly chagrined that Perot kept him from winning 50 percent of the vote in '96, but some of his top aides were more philosophical about it: They realized that Perot may have given Clinton the presidency in the first place. In 1992, Ross Perot siphoned 19.5 percent of the popular vote away from the two major candidates. That "giant sucking sound" Perot loved to talk about? That was not the sound of jobs going to Mexico. It was the sound of the twangy Texan vacuuming up disaffected Americans who likely would have shuffled into the voting booth, held their noses, and voted for George H.W. Bush.
Which histrionic populist could play a similar role in 2012? It's hard from watching his television performances to know exactly what Glenn Beck is thinking half the time, but "Glenn Beck for President
" stickers were all the rage at this year's CPAC meeting in Washington, and there's a Facebook page
and even a petition
of those who'd like to see the Fox showman enter the fray. Likewise, there's a "Draft Lou Dobbs
" movement that exists –- at least online -– seeking to transfer anger over immigration into a third party candidacy. These men cannot be elected, but they can run if they want to. And it ain't rocket science figuring out which political party would be hurt most in 2012 by a Glenn Beck or Lou Dobbs (or any Beck-Dobbs imitators) candidacy.
: He's already got the job
. Incumbency is supposed to be a disadvantage in the current political environment, but that perception is worth a closer look. It's certainly true that people have a low opinion of Congress. A recent Gallup Poll put the percentage of Americans who approve of the job Congress is doing at 18 percent
, the lowest figure in a year. A number of governors have seen the bottom fall out of their polling numbers, too. So yes, anti-incumbency is potent right now. But so is the bully pulpit. At this point in his presidency Ronald Reagan's job approval rating was in the mid-40s, lower than Obama's is now. In the 1982 midterm elections, Reagan's party lost 26 seats in the House. Two years later, Reagan carried 49 states while winning 58.5 percent of the popular vote in his re-election bid.
"In a midterm election, it's possible to get really far by just saying 'no,'" astute political observer Bill Schneider said at a breakfast meeting with political reporters last week. "In a presidential year, you have to present a real alternative."
In 1994 when I was covering the White House for the Baltimore Sun, I spent the week of the midterm elections vacationing in Arizona. It turned out I missed a pretty big political story -- the first GOP takeover of Congress in 40 years, to be precise -- and when on my return our congressional correspondent told me breezily, "While you were gone, your beat disappeared." I accepted the needle, but remember my private reaction, "I don't think the White House disappears."
As it happened, Bill Clinton had some of those same feelings: "The president is still relevant here," he said somewhat defensively in a news conference the following April. Clinton was right, even if he was mostly bucking himself up. The president appoints judges, vetoes bad legislation (and sometimes legislation that isn't so bad), manages the executive branch, and serves as the commander-in-chief. He also is the person this nation turns to when tragedy strikes. They can rise to the occasion, or not. For Reagan it was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. In Clinton's case it was the Oklahoma City bombing.
"We needed a president," former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry recalled later.
"That was a kind of a moment that turned around his presidency."
So, yes, presidents are relevant, and the past century or so has shown us that they are more than twice as likely to be re-elected (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) than rejected after one term (Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush). Occasionally they are deemed a failure and the public tunes them out. That usually happens in the second term, not the first, and it has not yet happened to Barack Obama, who demonstrated as recently as the Feb. 25 health care summit that he can command any room of his fellow politicians, no matter how big the egos and ambitions around him.
: The midterm elections can be cathartic
. It's clear that Democrats in Congress are dragging Obama down a bit --- and that they are also paying a price for some of the disillusionment with the president. It's a mutually reinforcing problem like the drowning guy who grabs the lifeguard around the neck pulling them both toward the bottom of the lake. But nature often has a solution for this problem: There's a possibility that Obama won't have Nancy Pelosi to carry on his back after November.
If that turnaround occurred --- if the House (or the Senate) goes Republican in this year's midterms -- the Republicans would smell blood in the water. They would do well to make sure it isn't their own before letting the sharks loose. In 1954, Republicans lost both houses of Congress even though their party standard-bearer was in the White House. As it happened, this didn't do much to derail Dwight Eisenhower. It turned out that Ike could do just fine negotiating with fellow native Texans Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, and he was re-elected easily in 1956. Likewise, that GOP takeover in 1994-95 actually enhanced Clinton's political prospects: He was always best in full-throated campaign mode, and he outfoxed then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and the other GOP leaders on issues ranging from the budget to impeachment.
Reason 5: Youth will be served
. For four decades, it was the Democrats' recurring fantasy that young voters would buck their elders and put a hip liberal in the White House. Lowering the voting age to 18 gave George McGovern and his campaign brass visions of riding a tide of youthful disaffection into the White House. This hope proved to be delusional. Turns out young people voted like old people -- only less frequently. To the consternation of liberals, when a generational gap finally did emerge it helped Ronald Reagan, the oldest and most conservative candidate in memory. Young voters recoiled from the Carter malaise and embraced Reagan's aspirational appeal.
But that has all changed --- and Obama is the beneficiary. The trend began in 2004. Remember the old line about not trusting anyone over 30? If the only people who could vote in 2004 had been the 18-29 crowd, John Kerry might be president: He carried the Millennial Generation by some 9 points, the only demographic group the Democrats won. In 2008, this trend became a tsunami of support. It evidenced itself in the primaries, when young people probably made the difference for Obama -- and it crested in November when the Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden defeated the GOP tandem of John McCain and Sarah Palin by a stunning 2-1 margin.
Much was made last month when a study by the Pew Research Center
showed that the Democrats' support among Millennials had shrunk from a 32-point advantage to 14. Their love affair with Obama has tempered some, too. Pew's study, one of the most ambitious ever done of the so-called "We Generation," shows approval for Obama's job performance declined from 73 percent to 57 percent in just a year. It's not a great trend, for sure, but that's still solid support -- and it seems poised to rebound if conditions in the country improve. Young Americans still like Obama better than anyone else. Also, they are an uncommonly optimistic crowd: Although unemployment has hit the young disproportionately, they have a sunny view of their own futures.
The most immediate beneficiary of that positive outlook may be Barack Obama -- three years from now. Another in-depth survey of under-30s that will be released Tuesday by Harvard's Institute of Politics also found general slippage in support for Obama, and dissatisfaction about the president's job performance on the economy and health care. But, like the Pew poll, the IOP survey finds a residual reservoir of support for the president that ought to concern Republicans. "Among the Millennials who told us that they volunteered on behalf of the Obama campaign in 2008, 85 percent said they'd be likely to engage in similar activities in 2012," John Della Volpe, IOP's director of polling told me this weekend.
: Bad news is driving the public dissatisfaction
. This president inherited two wars and an abysmal economy. For a while, the public didn't blame him: But Iraq seems to have settled into a slog where progress is elusive -- and Obama's delay in forging a new Afghanistan strategy didn't help him either. Moreover, economic conditions worsened markedly during his first year in office while the president seemed obsessed with health care. But, again, nothing stays the same forever. Health care reform legislation will either pass or it won't, and either way Obama will likely be better off on this issue than he is now. If it passes, by 2012 the public is likely to have learned to live with it -- and may discover it actually likes elements of the new law. If it is not enacted, the failure is no more likely to be the campaign's driving narrative than it was in 1996, two years after the Clinton plan went nowhere.
As for the economy: If it goes up, so inevitably will the president's popularity. Like Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama is presiding over a deep recession in his first two years in office. Reagan famously vowed to "stay the course," which served him well when the economy came roaring back in late 1983 and 1984. Obama's critics have noted dryly that Obama has pointedly not told Americans he'd stay the course, perhaps because it's not clear what that course would be. Nor did Obama achieve the kind of legislative success in his first year in office that Reagan did. Still, the president of the United States retains the microphone even in times of trouble -- perhaps especially in times of trouble -- and if the chief executive keeps cool, makes sound decisions, and things actually get better
, so do the president's own political prospects.
History offers no guarantees, of course. Most prominent economists seem confident that economic conditions will be much better in 2012. If that's true, Obama should be in good shape. If not, well, then this is no longer the Great Recession. It's the second Great Depression, and Obama won't be Reagan or Clinton -- or even Jimmy Carter. He'll be Herbert Hoover, and we'll all be in the soup (or soup kitchens) and Barack Obama's re-election chances will be the least of our worries.