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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.

NEWSCOM

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.

The reason is reducible to a simple calculation of costs and benefits. The president and his allies in Congress advertised their bill as a cost-reduction package, framing it as a win-win-win: People without insurance would get coverage, people with insurance would see their premiums reduced, and taxpayers would eventually enjoy a lower bill for it all.

However, this argument was a smokescreen. Obamacare focuses almost entirely on coverage expansion. The cost-reducing mechanisms are either very weak, politically impractical, or will eventually hit the middle class square in the jaw. The bill is in fact a win-lose-lose: Those without insurance definitely win, but only because of a transfer of wealth from people with insurance as well as from taxpayers.

Since most Americans already have insurance, this establishes an easy goal for the Republican nominee: Convince the average American that he will be worse off because of the bill. This should not be a difficult task. Credible, nonpartisan reports, many from government agencies, spell out in great detail how millions of Americans will be made worse off by Obamacare. What’s more, Obamacare continues to poll very poorly, mainly because of the messy process that produced it. Most Americans believe that the political system is broken, and that the effort of congressional Democrats in 2009-2010 to pass Obamacare is the prime example of what’s going wrong in Washington. Thus, it should be relatively easy for the GOP to convince voters they are bound to lose because bad process produces bad policy.

The final issue Obama will confront is the deficit. Like the economy, this is an issue that Obama owns politically, even if he is only partly responsible for it. Reduced tax revenues and greater demand for social welfare programs make deficits boom in a recession. And the long-term deficit is almost entirely a function of the runaway cost of Medicare.

Still, the president is politically vulnerable for good reason: He never really tried to forge a bipartisan coalition to tackle deficit reduction. His own deficit commission offered him a sensible, bipartisan plan—the “Simpson-Bowles” plan—that he summarily rejected.

And make no mistake: The deficit is a powerful political issue. The federal budget is massively complex—Rep. Paul Ryan and a handful of wonks at the Congressional Budget Office might be the only people in the country who begin to understand it. Yet most people grasp that money borrowed by the federal government must one day be paid back, with interest, by the taxpayer. Thus, as with health care, the Republican job on the deficit will come down to convincing voters that their intuitions are correct: They are losers because Obama raided the Treasury to pay off Democratic client groups, leaving the average taxpayer to foot the bill.

All in all, this election will be fought more on bread-and-butter issues than any since at least 1992. Ronald Reagan’s question to the nation in the final debate against Jimmy Carter—“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”—will be the GOP’s mantra in 2012. The answer is obviously no, and the Republicans will use the economy, Obamacare, and the deficit to pin the blame squarely on the president.

How will the Obama team counter? The Obama campaign has already telegraphed its strategy for 2012, and it is worth reviewing in some detail, beginning with the demographics of the electorate. Obama’s election in 2008 depended largely on an unprecedented haul among nonwhite voters, and Obama’s campaign gurus believe that demography can trump economics in the Mountain West swing states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico as well as the “New South” states of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. Additionally, they are counting on another monumental haul from the youth vote, hoping that massive turnout at colleges like Ohio State and the University of Michigan will keep those important Rust Belt states in the Democratic column.

There is little doubt that Barack Obama will win a majority of the non-white vote and the young next year. Even so, the president and his team are being wildly optimistic (assuming they believe their own spin). For starters, large majorities among minorities and kids are built into every Democratic candidate’s campaign. Obama cannot just win these groups; he has to win them by such overwhelming margins that they cover his massive losses among older white voters.

Proponents of a so-called emerging Democratic majority, who argue that the nonwhite vote will eventually transform the Democrats into permanent occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., consistently make a category error when they discuss these voters. African Americans, no doubt, are solid Democrats who support their party year in, year out, regardless of the national climate. Yet Hispanics are not Democratic loyalists. They are swing voters who tilt Democratic. The difference between these two groups is like the difference between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania—the Bay State almost never votes Republican for president, while the Keystone State does so in a reasonably good year for the GOP.

And Obama’s numbers among Hispanics and other nonblack minority groups are less than stellar. The most recent reading from Gallup shows the president earning 52 percent approval from Hispanics, which compares unfavorably to his 67 percent share of the Hispanic vote in 2008. The same goes for the youth vote—again, a swing group with a Democratic tilt. Gallup finds Obama with just 50 percent approval from adults aged 18 to 29, down from 66 percent among these voters in 2008.

So if demographics will not save Obama, what about his message? His campaign team has already made fairly clear their approach to the 2012 election. The president will focus relentlessly on inputs. Obama is going to gloss over the weak performance of the economy to emphasize all of the “important” things he has done to fix the problem. We see this in the daily drumbeat out of the White House: The “do-nothing” Congress has not acted to fix the economy, so Obama will. The idea is to emphasize the energy and vigor of the president in tackling the problem, so people will at least believe he is trying. FDR benefited from this appearance, but that was in large part because he was actually doing everything he could. With Obama, it is mostly a posture he adopted after the 2010 election.

The other major message will be pure demagoguery: The Republicans are the party of extremists who threaten the republic. This message is reminiscent of the Herbert Hoover reelection effort; in late October 1932, the beleaguered president said:

We are told by the opposition that we must have a change, that we must have a new deal. It is not the change that comes from normal development of national life to which I object, but the proposal to alter the whole foundations of our national life which have been builded through generations of testing and struggle, and of the principles upon which we have builded the nation. .  .  . Our people should consider [carefully] whether they will support changes which radically affect the whole system which has been builded up by a hundred and fifty years of the toil of the fathers.

Team Obama will basically make the same case: The Republican program is at its core radical and anti-American. Will it work for them? The best way to answer this question is with another question: Did it work for Hoover?

The Obama strategy as it has developed is insufficient to produce reelection. The president is going to need assistance, either from more robust growth or a fumble by the Republicans. Bad demographic math, phony activism, and Hooveresque demagoguery is not enough to win.

Add all this up, and we’re left with this conclusion: If things continue on the same trajectory as they have over the last three years, the president will face a near insuperable challenge for reelection. Provided that the GOP nominates a reasonably attractive candidate, it will truly be one for the history books if Obama can be reelected with a terribly weak economy, a massively unpopular health care bill, an obscenely large deficit, and no compelling case for a second term.

It could happen, obviously, but I would not bet my money on it. Not in this economy!

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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