By any objective standard, Obama’s legislative and foreign policy accomplishments put him in a select group of consequential presidents. He is clearly one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, and rational leaders the U.S. has ever had, and his Administration has been essentially scandal-free. But no president has ever won reelection with unemployment hovering near 9%, which is almost certain to be the reality on Election Day 2012.
Sadly, Americans choose presidents based more on the economy and the candidates’ “likability” than on their policy positions. Contrary to Republican propaganda, the economy is actually much better, and will likely continue to be, than when Obama took office. At that time we were hemorrhaging 750,000 jobs a month, and the economy was contracting at an annualized rate of almost 9%. This, however, will do little to mitigate Americans’ feelings that Obama has failed on the economy; “it could’ve been a lot worse” is not a persuasive campaign slogan although Obama should be applauded for helping us avoid another Great Depression.
So by any reasonable metric one has to assume that Obama is likely to lose reelection next year. This is what statistical guru Nate Silver—putting the odds at slightly greater than 50%—predicted in his recent piece in the New York Times Magazine
Here’s why I think the analysis is wrong.
To begin, let me state that if the GOP nominated a conservative with solid credentials, someone smart and a moderate on social issues, Obama would likely lose. But that’s like imagining Republicans suddenly believing in strengthening the middle class and social safety nets, and that’s not who Republicans are.
The modern GOP is little more than a freak show comprised of intellectually challenged and morally bankrupt politicians and future reality TV stars. Jon Huntsman, who currently polls at less than 1%, is the only candidate both sane and not craven.
Mitt Romney, the likely nominee, is sane, and during his better days as Governor of Massachusetts he was actually a moderate Republican in the old mold. But that Mitt is long gone, and his positions today are little different from just about anyone on the far right. No doubt he will change his views and lie to the American people during the general election, but YouTube and Google will make this tactic not nearly as effective as it would have been in the pre-digital era.
More importantly, two elections last Tuesday portend badly for Mr. Romney. In Ohio, the anti-union measure signed into law by the newly-elected Republican governor was repealed by a nearly 2-1 margin. Shortly before Election Day, Romney had declared his “110%” support for the measure. That comment in 2011 could be decisive in 2012; given Ohio’s importance as a key swing state, this amounts to a huge boost for Obama.
Far away in Mississippi a much different ballot measure went down to defeat—the Personhood Amendment, which would’ve declared that a fertilized egg is a human being. This legislation would have criminalized certain forms of birth control, would have forced rape and incest victims to carry to term, and would have outlawed most fertility clinics. Even in Mississippi, one of the most far-right places in America, the measure was defeated by a double-digit margin. Romney was again on the losing side of the issue, supporting the measure and agreeing that personhood begins at conception. This position is well out of the mainstream; with two Supreme Court positions likely on the line in the next election, Romney in effect gave voters one more reason to be wary.
One final point: Romney is on record opposing Obama’s bailout of the auto industry. The problem is that the effort was extremely successful, saving upwards of a million jobs and leading to the rejuvenation of the industry. Romney, whose father was governor of Michigan, was supposed to have an advantage in the Upper Midwest states—but his opposition to the auto deal probably threw that advantage away.
It’s a long way to November 2012. Events in Europe are particularly troubling, and could pull the U.S. back into recession and diminish Obama’s prospects.
But barring any economic calamities, scandals, or foreign policy crises that reflect poorly on the President, I think he will beat any of the current crop of GOP nominees. The GOP field is that bad. We should all be thankful since Obama, despite his faults and stumbles, deserves another term.
P.S. I still think Obama could’ve lost in 2008 if John McCain had chosen a credible female vice-presidential running mate, rather than a person as divisive and idiotic as Sarah Palin. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas or Olympia Snowe of Maine would’ve greatly improved his chances.