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Morning Jay: Is Obama in Better Shape for 2012?

6:00 AM, Mar 2, 2011 • By JAY COST
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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.

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