The last month has been about the worst in Barack Obama’s presidency. For the third time in the last year he got left naked at the poker table by Republicans as Eric Cantor walked off with his Bears hat in the debt ceiling negotiations, his resident haters are running around the country telling his base that he is a sellout, the economy is still lousy and a week ago politicos were openly fantasizing about having taken another candidate to the 2008 electoral prom.
This week, the president will be trying to convince the public and Congress that he has a realistic plan to reduce unemployment. Good luck. Even the downfall of ’80s uber-terrorist Muammar Gaddafi hasn’t lifted Obama’s job approval numbers above the electorally dangerous low 40s.
This is about as bad as it gets. And he’s probably going to get re-elected. That’s right, Obama is very likely to win re-election in 2012 and everyone in politics and political science knows it. This is not political hackery, or wishful thinking. Basic cold, hard campaign facts, history and, yes, even the economy give Obama an edge heading into 2012.
Worst Weeks in History
It is extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent president, and despite Obama hitting his lowest monthly approval numbers (43 percent) he looks surprisingly good historically.
Let’s take a look at his predecessors at this point in their first terms: George Bush 41 (74 percent), George Bush 43 (59 percent), Bill Clinton (46 percent), Ronald Reagan (43 percent) and Jimmy Carter (32 percent). Consider that Clinton and Bush 41 actually hit their lowest polling numbers during their re-election years and were dubbed by the press “the Incredible Shrinking Presidents” halfway through their terms.
Despite low job approval numbers Obama is still tied with or leading his two most likely challengers, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, and considering past presidential polls in August before an election year he’s looking pretty good.
In short, if history is any indicator, Obama’s chances right now of being re-elected are about fifty-fifty, which is amazing considering how miserable the economy looks. In fact, the most obvious hurdle and possible guarantor of the president’s re-election is the state of the economy. The overused factoid that “No president since FDR has ever been re-elected with unemployment over 7 percent” will not apply in the coming election.
Why? This recession will be almost eight years old by the time of the 2012 elections and will transcend two presidents and four volatile Congressional cycles. It’s hard for the public to place full blame on anyone, and even though no one is happy with Obama’s economic policies, according to a recent CBS-New York Times Poll, voters still trust him to handle the economy (47 percent) better than the GOP (33 percent).
Public faith in any president’s ability to magically fix the economy is at an all-time low, which means even a meager improvement will benefit President Obama. Blame can be spread all around but the president is the only person who can claim victory if we get a few months of unemployment trending down, similar to what happened in early 2011, and this is not unlikely.
Two Big Questions
Presidential campaigns don’t happen in a vacuum. So in addition to historical trends and a “blameless economy,” the reason Obama will get re-elected is the state of the Republican candidate field. No, this is not a snarky, liberal rant about how they’re all so flawed, but it’s no coincidence that many of the “stronger” candidates opted to “skip” this campaign because they thought Obama was going to be hard to beat.
Objectively speaking, the presumptive Republican nominees, Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, are going to have trouble with the two big questions of any election. In my new book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell I point out that presidential campaigns boil down to two key questions: 1) Do you think the incumbent has done a good job? and 2) Do you think the challenger can do the job better?
Here’s the tricky part: Voters spend the entire campaign year trying to figure out the answer to question No. 1. The incumbent says he’s done a good job, the challenger says he hasn’t. If voters say yes to question No. 1, they vote to re-elect and that’s the end of it. If they decide no, then the challenger has a very small window, such as that between Labor Day and Election Day, to convince the public that he or she can do the job “better” than the incumbent. This an extremely hard task, which is why we’ve only had two presidents in the last 50 years fail in their attempt to get re-elected. Consider the 2004 election: George W. Bush was the only president to get re-elected with an approval rating of less than 50 percent. It was clear the public did not think he was doing a good job but John Kerry could not convince anyone that he could do it better.
Rick or Mitt is going to have to convince the public he is not as crazy as the Tea Partiers in Congress; that he is not as crazy as unpopular Republican governors in swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida; and then that he can fix an economic situation that seems intractable. Even if the public is lukewarm on Obama’s economic moves, this does not translate into believing that the GOP candidate can and will do better.
What Does Victory Look Like?
In August of last year, Americans cared about Elena Kagan getting on the Supreme Court, Obama ending combat operations in Iraq and the BP oil spill. Seems like ancient history now. The campaign environment for the 2012 elections will look drastically different than America looks today. President Obama has licked his wounds and is already starting his 2012 push with his bus tour and impending jobs package. The president remains popular personally despite low performance numbers, he looks good historically, he’s got a better chance of taking credit for a slightly improving economy than taking full blame for a failed one and his opposition may be hamstrung by their own party’s poor reputation.
All of this boils down to Barack Obama’s chances in 2012 being a lot better than you think.