The Magazine

A Very Beatable President

But the GOP can still blow it.

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By JAY COST
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We are a little over 10 months from Election Day, and the Christmas hope of many conservatives is that voters next November will deliver a decisive rebuke to President Barack Obama. Obviously, a lot can happen in 10 months. Nevertheless, many of the fundamentals of the race are already in place. And the news is not good for the president.

Photo of a sign that reads, "one term president"

Next year is shaping up as the least favorable for an incumbent president since 1992.

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Horse race polls are of limited value this far from Election Day. The 10 to 15 percent of the electorate in the middle—the slice of voters who swing elections—aren’t paying much attention. Sometimes these voters do not make a decision until the very last minute, as was the case in the 1980 campaign between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

Still, the polls offer some guidance. The RealClearPolitics.com average of them shows Obama earning just 43 percent when matched against an unnamed Republican, and only 46 percent when matched against Mitt Romney. This is bad for the president because public opinion about an incumbent is pretty firm and difficult—though not impossible—to move, absent shifts in the broader political context.

And what to make of that context? Each presidential election is fought over a series of shifting national concerns, and the issues of the 2012 cycle are the least favorable for an incumbent president since 1992, and maybe even since 1980. And we know what happened to the incumbents in those elections.

Three issues in particular dominate the discussion, and none of them favors Obama. The most important is the economy, which has been struggling through a decade of weak growth. Consider that between 1951 and 2000, the American economy grew by an average of 37 percent every decade. Between 2001 and 2010, the pace of growth was less than half that, at just 15 percent.

This has generated an enormous “output gap”—the difference between what the economy would ideally produce and what it has actually done. Over the last decade, the size of this gap is a yawning $2.5 trillion. The average American has felt the effects in stubbornly high unemployment and stagnant real incomes, and the effort of the Federal Reserve to generate growth by cutting interest rates to the bone means that people who save their pennies earn virtually no interest for their scrimping.

Barack Obama certainly doesn’t deserve all the blame, but he will pay a high political price for three reasons. First, he overpromised to an absurd degree when he entered office. He claimed that the stimulus bill would reignite the American growth machine and keep unemployment under 8 percent. Neither happened, so Obama will pay for his unjustified optimism.

Second, he failed to form a bipartisan coalition to tackle the economic problem. The many comparisons made between Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt in the heady days of winter 2009 always seemed to overlook the fact that FDR’s New Deal, at least in its early stages, was bipartisan, framed as a national response to a national emergency. Obama’s approach was to breezily tell congressional Republicans, “I won.” Because the stimulus manifestly failed to deliver the growth that the president promised, Obama and congressional Democrats must bear the weight of that failure all by themselves.

Third, Obama turned his attention away from the economy far too quickly. This points to another difference between Obama and Roosevelt. FDR essentially threw everything at the Depression, including the kitchen sink; the legislating of 1933 and 1934 was relentlessly focused on the economy, and voters had no choice but to conclude that Roosevelt was, at the very least, doing everything he could think of. Not so with Obama. Having passed their stimulus, this president and his allies in Congress turned their attention to grander social welfare ambitions, something FDR did not begin to do until 1935, when the economy had already started growing at a robust rate.

Thus, the only real question is how big a price Obama will pay. The December survey of economists by the Wall Street Journal found that, on average, they expect 2012 annual GDP to come in at 2.3 percent, far below the postwar average, unemployment to be stuck at or above 8.5 percent for the whole year, and home prices to be flat. No incumbent president since FDR has been reelected when the economy still has so much slack.

Obama’s record on the economy is so dismal that, all by itself, it should be sufficient for an able Republican to defeat him. Yet this president faces other daunting challenges. The next big one is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. It contributed mightily to the GOP wave of 2010, and if the Republicans play their cards right, it will defeat Obama next year.

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