Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Handicapping Obama

The election is still a bit over nine months away. How are President Obama's chances of reelection?

Since World War II, only two incumbent presidents (Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush) have been defeated. In addition, Lyndon Johnson thought that his chances of reelection were poor and dropped out of the race.

The common factor in all three of these cases was the existence of a challenger in the primaries. This challenger captured at least 20% of the vote. This indicated a significant dissatisfaction for the incumbent within his own party. This looks good for Obama. He is unchallenged in the primaries.

Polls cannot be trusted this far out but they show Obama to be weak. Even if he polls slightly ahead of the Republican challengers, the Republican race has not ended yet. At this point there are supporters for each candidate who say that they would vote for Obama before they would vote for their candidate's rival. This happened four years ago - supposedly Hillary supporters would go for McCain over Obama. These people normally come back to the fold by election. that means that Obama's current numbers are weaker than they look.

The economy was a major factor in Carter's and Bush's loss (to say nothing of Herbert Hoover in 1932). Inflation was running 10% or higher in the Carter years and the country was entering a new recession. Carter seemed helpless to do anything about the economy. Bush was running at the tail end of a mild recession.

By itself, the economy is not the deciding factor. The important thing is the direction of the economy and the public perception of the President's role. Unemployment was high in 1984 but dropping and inflation was the lowest it had been in years. That let Reagan claim credit in his Morning in America ads. From the start, Reagan took ownership of the economy. It cost him in the 1982 mid-term when the country was in the grip of a double-dip recession but by 1984 things had improved. This allowed Reagan to win 49 states. Reagan's most effective line in 1980 and in 1984 was "Are you better off now then you were four years ago?"

In contrast, Bush seemed clueless about the economy in 1992 as was Carter in 1980.

This is a serious weak spot for Obama. By the election, the economy will have been in recovery for 3 1/2 years but it doesn't feel like it. This opens him to charges of mismanaging the recovery. It also hurts him that he continues to blame the Bush administration. After four years and trillions of dollars, the economy is Obama's.

Foreign affairs can hurt an incumbent. The Viet Nam war dragged down Johnson. Carter looked helpless after Iran held the American embassy staff hostage for more than a year.

Foreign affairs hurt Bush in different ways. He was a war president and nations have a tendency to retire war presidents during peace. There was also widespread anxiety about the trade deficit with Japan. This was made worse when Bush got sick at a state dinner and threw up in the Japanese president's lap.

Obama is a war president although he inherited his biggest wars. Iraq and Afghanistan will probably not be held against him unless conditions change. On the other hand, if the US-supported governments in Iraq or Afghanistan fail then Obama will be blamed for turning victory into defeat.

And that is not all of Obama's problems. There are numerous hot-spots that could erupt between now and the election. Obama has political capitol invested in the Arab Spring, especially Egypt and Libya. If either of them turns into an Islamic dictatorship then it will reflect badly on him. As it is, several US citizens who were in Egypt to promote democracy are under threat of arrest and conviction for interfering in Egypt's affairs.

Obama had chances to intercede in Iran and Syria and passed. Now Syria is in a civil war

Iran is a special case and could sink Obama all by itself. It has directly threatened the US Navy. It continues to develop nuclear weapons. It also has an interest in destabilizing Iraq.

A worst-case for Obama would be for Israel to attack Iran's uranium refining facilities. This could cause the Islamic world to insist that Obama choose sides between Israel and Islam. Egypt could well break off relations with the US after an Israeli strike.

Then there are gas prices. This was another factor in Carter's defeat. Obama has pointed out that he cannot affect gas prices. That is a poor defense after prominent Democrats attacked Bush over the same issue in 2008. Worse, he just cancelled a pipeline and his Secretary of Energy is on record suggesting that high gas prices are a good thing.

A final factor is the presence of a third party challenger. If one materializes, it will not happen until Summer. depending on which side they draw from, a third party challenger can deliver a margin of victory to the least similar candidate. This happened in the 1980 and 1992 elections. It also happened in the 1968 and 2000 elections when the sitting vice-president was defeated.

Despite his sense of inevitability in 2008, Obama came close to losing the election several times. He did not win enough delegates to give him the nomination outright. First Hillary Clinton had to concede and release her delegates. Obama was ahead of McCain all Summer but it was so close that it was usually within the margin of error (i.e. a poll with a 5% margin of error might show Obama ahead by 3%). The Republican convention and Sarah Palin put McCain ahead for several weeks until the banking collapse. Voters blamed the Republicans for the collapse and Obama finally took a decisive lead.

The candidate of 2012 is not the Obama of 2008. He can no longer run on a vague Hope and Change. He will run on his record against a challenger who can promise the moon. Obama's most significant accomplishments are either unknown or unpopular which does not give him much of a record to run on. He still has the advantages of incumbency but that could be overtaken at any time by events.

At this point, I would give Obama slightly better than a 50/50 chance of reelection. He does not have any challenges within his own party and none of the Republicans feel inevitable. He does not have any advantages like a strong economy and it is hard to imagine any foreign affairs triumphs in the near future. Several things could go wrong and take his presidency with them.

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