Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Handicapping Obama II

Last post I examined the presidents who lost their reelection. Now I am going to examine the ones who were successfully reelected and see how their example applies to the Obama campaign.

I was too young to be aware of Ike's reelection and Johnson was not a real two-term president. On the other hand, the 1972 race was the first one I really paid attention to so I will start with Nixon.

I consulted Wikipedia's entry on Nixon to remind myself what happened during his first term. Looking over his accomplishments, it is amazing the the left hates him so. He was a big-government Republican whose agenda was well to the left of Carter and Clinton. His administration was almost an extension of LBJ's Great Society with major, successful, initiatives on desegregation and environmental protection. He opened relations with China and eased tension with the USSR. While he did expand the Viet Nam war into Cambodia, temporarily, he also decreased American troops. When Nixon took office troop levels were 475,200. By the 1972 election they were down to 24,200 with the last American combat troops withdrawn in 1973. If Obama had accomplished half as much as Nixon his progressive base would still be fired up. Economically Nixon was credited with slowing inflation.

For a challenger, the Democrats picked George McGovern who was a flawed candidate. He ran to Nixon's left which probably made him unelectable from the start. His first running mate had problems with stress requiring electo-shock therapy. McGovern made a number of policy flips and the main campaign ad I remember showed a coin flipping back and forth while an announcer read McGovern's conflicting statements. It is incomprehensible that the Nixon team felt threatened enough to break into McGovern's campaign headquarters. He never had a chance. Had Nixon's people been less paranoid he would be remembered as a successful president.

There aren't many lesions here for Obama. It is hard to believe in retrospect but Nixon was very popular in 1972 and always led in the polls.

Reagan's reelection is the one the Obama administration would most like to follow. Reagan won a tight race in 1980 only to see the country enter a double-dip recession, the only one comparable to the Great Recession. Reagan's approval ratings dropped and the opposition made heavy gains in Congress in 1982. By 1984 the economy had improved enough for the Reagan administration to proclaim "Morning in America". Reagan went on to win by a huge margin. The only question on election night was if he would carry all 50 states.

Clinton has been held up as a model for the Obama administration. He took office at the tail end of a recession and had major losses in the mid-term election but still won reelection.

The final president to consider in George W. Bush. Again, Bush took office during a recession and was reelected. Unlike the others, Bush made gains in the mid-term election.

One thing that all three presidents had in common was a weak challenger. Reagan ran against Mondale who had been Carter's vice-president and tried to make the election a referendum on the 1980 election. Clinton ran against Dole who had been Ford's running mate. In 2004, the Democrats were willing to support ABB (Anybody But Bush). They settled on John Kerry on the basis of his record in Viet Nam. A boring senator, Kerry's campaign collapsed when it came out that he had only served three months in combat and was better known as a war protester.

There are two lessons that the Obama campaign can learn from these three examples. Presidents who take office during a recession and run for reelection during a recovery tend to win. This will be important if the current recovery continues. The other lesson is that no matter how vulnerable a president looks at mid-terms, a poor challenger will still loose. Unfortunately, neither of these in within Obama's control.

There is one final lesson from all four presidents. All of them looked and acted presidential. They took every opportunity to surround themselves with the trappings of office. It was obvious that they were comfortable in office. They may have originally run as outsiders but they ran for reelection as insiders. There are lessons here for Obama. As I said yesterday, he needs to stop complaining about the office. We don't want to hear about how lame the phones are or how hard it is to do anything. After all, why should we return someone to an office he hates?

The Obama administration has recognized that they have problems. They know that they cannot run a Hope and Change campaign again and are now running as the underdog. This is the exact opposite of the Clinton strategy. Clinton presented himself as the inevitable winner and spent more time being presidential (doing official duties in public) than campaigning. By admitting weakness, the Obama campaign is taking a huge risk. Their goal is to raise record campaign funds by making their candidate seem vulnerable but this type of image can be self-fulfilling.

To summarize, administrations live and die by the economy. Presidents running for reelection during a recovery are almost always reelected. Ones running during a recession lose. Midterms are a poor predictor of reelection, especially if the opposition nominates a poor candidate. Sitting presidents who act presidential (Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43) tend to be reelected but ones who seem ill at ease (Ford, Carter, Bush 41) are defeated. None of this looks good for President Obama since the economy is, at best, sluggish, and he has made a point of his disdain for Washington, DC and its culture. The best he can hope for is a weak challenger, maybe Donald Trump.

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