So the much-anticipated pivot to the center in the State of the Union speech has happened. As pivots go, President Obama’s wasn’t the most elegant—there were no triple lutzes or extended camel spins—but he didn’t fall on his face either. It seems clear that, for the next two years at least, President Obama is going to give us a break from claims of transforming America, à la FDR, and will work on triangulating to stay in office, à la Bill Clinton. The question is, can Obama pull a Clinton?
First, Clinton’s pivot in 1995 was all well and good, but the reason he was reelected in 1996 was that the economy was growing at more than 4 percent, and unemployment on Election Day was 5.4 percent. The budget deficit was lower than it had been when Clinton took office. His landmark piece of economic legislation, the 1993 budget—passed despite Republican opposition—seemed more or less vindicated by events.
Will the real world be as friendly to the incumbent president in November 2012? It’s doubtful. Moreover, to the degree the economy is coming back, will Obama’s stimulus—passed despite Republican opposition—get the credit? Or will it be his move to the center and his acceptance of the Bush tax rates that will seem to have worked? It’s more likely to be the latter, which will be of less electoral utility to Obama.
Second, Clinton could walk away from his unpopular health care plan after it died in Congress in 1994. Obama, on the other hand, is stuck with implementing and defending his. The most important piece of domestic legislation Clinton had signed on Election Day, welfare reform, was conservative. The most important law Obama will have signed is Obamacare. The contrast speaks for itself.
Third, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress in 1996, not just the House. In 2012, it will be harder for the incumbent president to run for reelection as a needed check on possibly unbridled GOP rule. And Newt Gingrich is scarier than John Boehner.
Fourth, consider the five presidential elections since the end of the Cold War. In 1992, Democrats got to run against an exhausted Bush administration seeking a fourth straight White House term for its party—and Clinton still won by just five points. In 1996 and 2000, the incumbent president and vice president, presiding over a time of peace and prosperity, received 49 percent and 48 percent of the vote respectively. In 2004, despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Democratic challenger to George W. Bush couldn’t top 48 percent. And in 2008, even with the financial meltdown, the deftness of the Obama campaign, and the McCain-Palin team’s problems, Barack Obama still received only 53 percent of the vote.
Underlying support for the Democratic party, in other words, isn’t what it was 50 years ago. Now, it’s also true that the strength of the Bush-Dole-Bush-McCain Republicans has been limited. So 2012 starts out as a pretty even playing field.
What’s more, how likely is it that Obama will carry states in 2012 that he failed to win in 2008? We’d bet against that. We’d bet, further, that Obama is very likely to lose three states he carried in 2008—Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana. And if that happens, Republicans only need also to pick up Florida, Ohio, and either Iowa or Wisconsin to win the presidency. This seems doable—or at least plausible.
So Republicans shouldn’t be too intimidated by Obama’s semi-convincing move to the center. It’s not as if Obama’s center is a vital one, or even a coherent one. It’s just a slightly better position than where he’s been on the left.
Of course, much will depend on the caliber of the GOP ticket. It would be good if that ticket were superior to—or at least more exciting and inspiring than—the past five. Ryan-Rubio or Christie-Rubio, anyone?