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Don't Underestimate the President

Down but not out.

3:38 PM, Dec 10, 2010 • By JAY COST
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As liberals this week publicly question whether some Democrat should primary President Obama, conservatives and Republicans should resist the temptation to become overconfident. If the 2012 presidential election were held today, President Obama would lose, but he wouldn't lose by much -- and more importantly the election isn't for another 23 months.

Don't Underestimate the President

This sometimes can be easy for conservatives -- or anybody, for that matter -- to forget. After all, a notable dynamic of our current partisan polarization is how it results in geographical homogeneity. Many congressional districts are either heavily Republican or heavily Democratic, and many of the evenly distributed districts depend on a balanced distribution of communities that are heavily partisan in one direction or the other. (My district, for example, is a swing district, but only because it combines heavily Republican counties with heavily Democratic ones.) What this means is that, a lot of the time, many of us do not really run into people whose views differ all that dramatically from ours, and it can be easy to forget that they actually exist!

But when it comes to our approach to national politics, it's vital to remember the political strength this president still enjoys. Nationwide, the country remains evenly split on evaluations of President Obama's job performance, with a slight tilt toward the negative. The RealClearPolitics job approval average, linked above, has actually found a marginal softening on the disapproval number in the weeks since Election Day, while the approval number has been consistently between 45 and 47 percent. Neither the Gallup nor the Rasmussen daily tracking polls show much change over the course of the last few weeks on either the approval or disapproval side. All in all, this suggests that President Obama's long slide in approval ratings -- going from the mid-60s at the time of the inauguration to the mid-40s by this summer -- has finally halted. He has hit some kind of floor.

And while the floor is below the reelection threshold, it is not very far underneath it. It would not take a huge shift in public opinion to get him back on his feet. This points to a general political rule of thumb that I think Obama himself -- or at least many Democrats -- overlooked in their evaluations of the 2008 election results. It was certainly the best victory a Democrat has had since 1964, but a shift of 4.8 million votes (or just 3.6 percent of the entire electorate) would have given John McCain a popular vote majority, despite the fact that President George W. Bush's job approval rating at the time was just 28 percent. The American party system in the last 20 years has seemingly settled into a battle in which neither side does better than 55 percent or worse than 45 percent. That means, in turn, that victory only ever depends on peeling away no more than 5 percent of the total electorate from the other side. Not an easy feat, of course, but by no means impossible. 

Like I said, this is a point that Obama and his advisors did not fully appreciate, which helps explain their push for Great Society Mach 2, despite the relative slimness of their majority. They paid the price this November, and now have the smallest Democratic contingent in the United States Congress since 1946. Republicans should not make the same mistake now. Even though President Obama is down right now, there are 23 months until the next election and frankly he is not down by all that much. An uptick of just 5 percent in his overall job approval rating would be enough to secure him reelection.

This week, the "sanctimonious" left is throwing yet another temper tantrum, similar to what we have seen them do before, most recently on the public option battle. There's nothing wrong with conservatives indulging in a little schadenfreude on this one, but they should not get carried away. Make no mistake: President Obama is down, but he is certainly not out. We have nearly two years until the next election, and despite the infighting on the Democratic side this week, Obama's coaltion will come together and pull out all the stops to reelect the president. Obama should not be underestimated. You don't go from being an Illinois state legislator to president of the United States in four years by sheer luck. He may not be "Lebron, baby," but he's also not from the Washington Generals!

Republicans should assume that the macro conditions in 2012 will favor a 50-50 split in the electorate. Then, they should ask: what actions can they take to tip it to 51-49, and they should really not expect to defeat President Obama by much more than that.

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