This story from Politico on Monday has been making the rounds:

Just four months after posting historic election gains, Republicans are experiencing a reality check about 2012: President Barack Obama is going to be a lot tougher to defeat than he looked late last year.

Having gone from despondency in 2008 to euphoria last November, a more sober GOP is wincing in the light of day as they consider just how difficult unseating an incumbent president with a massive warchest is going to be, even with a still-dismal economy.

Drill it down, and you get these reasons why Obama is looking better:

Much of the GOP realism is rooted in a long-standing truism of American politics – that absent a major crisis of confidence, it’s highly difficult to defeat a sitting president.

But aside from the traditional advantages of incumbency, Republicans are also fretting about the strength of Obama’s campaign infrastructure, the potential limitations of their own field and, particularly, the same demographic weaknesses that haunted them in 2008.

My reaction is twofold: first, Obama looks no more or less beatable now than he did four months ago; second, he looks fairly vulnerable. Let's look at each claim in turn.

First, what has changed in the last four months? Is it the fundamentals? I'd say, no. The economy grew at 2.6 percent in Q3 of 2010. It grew at 2.8 percent in Q4 of 2010. As for the jobs situation, the economy has yet to produce a sustained, significant number of new private sector jobs since the recession officially ended. The unemployment rate has ticked down substantially in the last two months, but that number is particularly unhelpful for understanding persistent joblessness, as its applicability depends on the unemployed not becoming discouraged, which they have. The better metric to track the jobs crisis is the number of adults employed as a percentage of the population, which currently reads at a terrible 58.4 percent, compared to 58.5 percent a year ago and 62.9 percent at the start of 2008. Additionally, the deficit is projected to be just as unsustainably high as it was projected to be four months ago. Plus, the health care bill is still as massively unpopular as it was fourth months ago, even in polls that grossly oversample Democrats relative to the electorate.

What has changed is Obama's job approval numbers, which have ticked up but still remain at weak levels. I'm skeptical that this is very relevant for the 2012 election. Instead, I think it's just a consequence of slight variations in the media environment. For the first half of 2010, there were negative stories about the health care bill filling the TV airwaves. For the second half, Republican candidates all across the country were putting out a message about how the Democrats have failed to lead. On Wednesday, November 3, those messages stopped, and the health care bill has since faded into the background. How will Obama's numbers hold up when the 2012 campaign starts in earnest? Absent major improvements in those fundamentals, I'd say, not very well.

Second, postwar presidential elections have generally fallen into one of these four categories:

(1) Times are good, and the credit clearly goes to one candidate.

(2) Times are good, but the credit does not clearly go to one candidate.

(3) Times are bad or uncertain, and the blame clearly goes to one candidate.

(4) Times are bad or uncertain, but the blame does not clearly go to one candidate.

Some elections fit in between the categories, but you get the general idea.

Because Obama assumed office in the middle of the recession, it is unlikely that the 2012 election will fall into category (3), when times are tough and it is clearly one person's fault (politically, at least). Republicans who argued that Obama was set to look like Carter were therefore wrong, but they were wrong four months ago as well.

Unfortunately for the president, the deficit, the persistent slack in the economy, and the health care bill are probably going to mean that (1) and (2) are not going to be in play, either. That leaves category (4): times are bad or uncertain, but the blame does not clearly go to one candidate. In the postwar era, I would say there have been five elections that fit this qualification: 1948 (arguably; see here), 1968, 1976, 2004, and 2008. Of particular interest about these elections is that sometimes the incumbent party wins (e.g. 1948 and 2004), but sometimes it loses (e.g. 1968, 1976, and 2008). Most of them have been fairly close, lacking any clear mandate for the victor.

Here's the important point, at least regarding the Politico piece: this was the way of the world 4 months ago, 6 months ago, even 9 months ago. The only thing that will knock us off our current course is a change in those fundamental issues -- jobs, the deficit, and health care. And so far I see little or no evidence of such changes.

As for the rest of the Politico piece, its argument in favor of Obama's improvement rests mostly upon constants like his fundraising ability and his appeal to Hispanics. Of course, constants can't explain change, meaning that these are basically just non sequiturs.

More broadly, while it is undoubtedly true that Obama brings strengths to the table, these must be weighed against his weaknesses. Kudos to Obama for winning Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico on the basis of strong Hispanic support. Ditto, his victories in North Carolina and Virginia, which have been partial to Republicans in the postwar era. However, he still lost states that usually favor victorious Democrats (Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia). He also underperformed in Ohio, all things considered. The rising Hispanic bloc in the Mountain West or white female independents in the "Technology Triangle" of North Carolina might make for more interesting stories than the old Jacksonians in the Border South, but electoral votes are electoral votes, and Obama won fewer of them than Bill Clinton did in 1992 or 1996. In other words, it's an open question as to whether Obama as a candidate was a net plus or net negative for Democrats in 2008. If he was a net negative in 2008, he will probably be again in 2012.

Bottom line: Obama is going to be tough to beat, but right now he looks vulnerable heading into 2012.

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