A year from now, the presidential election campaign will be in full swing. Obama and the Republican nominee will be touring the country at a feverish pace, trying hard to convince swing voters to go their way. Obviously, we’re still too far out from November 2012 to know what will happen, but we’re close enough to get a sense of the shape of the race.
President Obama’s chances next year don’t look good. As of this writing, the InTrade prediction market gives the president about a 50-50 chance, and even Democratic insiders are starting to doubt the top of their ticket. According to National Journal, they’re privately giving the president just a 63 percent chance of victory, which is not a great score considering the partisan source. These relatively gloomy odds are not surprising, as the president faces some historic challenges in his reelection quest.
Obama’s biggest problem is the economy, particularly as the typical voter experiences it. Though the recession technically ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average American has not felt the slightest hint of a two-year “recovery.”
To start with, the unemployment rate stood at 9.1 percent in August. And that figure actually understates how bad the job market is. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) counts a person as unemployed only if he is actively looking for work but cannot find any. Given the duration of this slump, there are plenty of able-bodied people who would like to work but have become so discouraged they have given up the job hunt. When we include these people in our estimates, the picture turns much darker. For instance, the “population-employment ratio,” calculated monthly by the BLS, measures the percentage of adults who are employed: In August that number stood at 58.2 percent, compared with 63.4 percent at the peak of the previous growth cycle. In fact, we have not seen so low a number persist for an extended period since the early 1980s, and that was before the gender revolution in the workplace was complete.
One consequence of high unemployment is that people who do have jobs are in no position to negotiate for higher wages. Unsurprisingly, then, real income has been stagnant under the Obama administration. Worse, people are depending more and more on government subsidies to maintain their standard of living. Government benefits accounted for a whopping 18 percent of all income in July, up from 13.5 percent during the Clinton and Bush years. Meanwhile, some 46 million Americans now depend on government assistance to put food on the table, up from just 23 million during the previous two administrations.
For the White House, the likelihood that these terrible trends will continue into next year is a serious concern. The kind of V-shaped recovery Ronald Reagan enjoyed just before the 1984 election is probably not going to happen; in fact, the economy still might dip back into recession. The Wall Street Journal conducts a monthly survey of top economists to gauge where the economy is headed; in the most recent survey they predicted unemployment basically unchanged a year from now and a tepid 2.5 percent GDP growth rate through 2012. Even Obama’s own Office of Management and Budget is forecasting unemployment next year above 8 percent, higher than it has been in any election season since World War II. These estimates, if borne out, will mean that most Americans still are not feeling the positive effects of a recovery by Election Day.
The economy puts a real strain on Obama’s reelection effort. Since the Great Depression, eight incumbent presidents have won a second term. Six of them—FDR, Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton—won because national conditions had noticeably improved during their tenures. Just two—Harry Truman and George W. Bush—won despite the continuation of hard times. Both Truman and Bush won by convincing America that, for all the trouble the country faced, electing the opposition would make things worse.
This is Obama’s only real hope of victory next year, and it’s been clear for a while that his campaign team plans to rerun a version of the Truman campaign in 1948. In fact, at his Labor Day address to union workers in Detroit last week, the president quoted Truman’s Labor Day speech from 1948, given at the start of that year’s election campaign.
It is commonly remembered that Truman ran around the country blasting the “Do Nothing” Republican Congress, but this is only part of the truth. In fact, Truman blasted a Republican Congress that not only did none of the progressive things the 1948 GOP platform had promised, but also demonstrated a willingness to roll back the New Deal. For instance, congressional Republicans tried for a time to reduce federal farm subsidies, and they did cut labor down to size with the Taft-Hartley Act.
This enabled Truman to turn the weak economy of the late 1940s to his advantage. Yes, he admitted, times were tough now, but they had been tough before. That was why FDR gave us the New Deal, which saved the country from the Great Depression. With dark clouds on the horizon once again, did the people really want to boot the Democrats from power and return the party of Herbert Hoover to the White House?
Truman’s campaign was one of the most nakedly partisan and dishonest in modern history. After all, his opponent—Thomas Dewey—was about as far from the laissez-faire wing of the Republican party as one could get. As governor of New York, he had actually stood out as a liberal on many issues, including civil rights. Regardless, Truman’s demagoguery worked like a charm, delivering him a solid, if not overwhelming, victory on Election Day.
No wonder the Obama team would like to re-create Truman’s success. But can it work?
Obama will have some substantial challenges in pursuing this approach. For starters, the Republican nominee would have to behave like Dewey, who overlearned the lessons of 1944. Dewey had been the GOP nominee against FDR that year, too, and was criticized for running too tough a campaign during wartime. So in 1948 he hung back, limiting himself to only the vaguest pronouncements on the stump, thereby enabling Truman to dominate the conversation. There’s virtually no chance that the 2012 GOP nominee will be so accommodating.
An even larger problem for the Obama administration is the policy context. The public in 1948 remembered fondly the farm supports, banking regulations, and social welfare provisions of the New Deal, to say nothing of success in World War II, and Truman could draw upon this deep reservoir of trust in what the government had done for the country over the last two decades. Such trust does not exist today; instead, the number of people who are skeptical of the government’s competence is at an all-time high. Worse, the main achievement of the current administration—Obamacare—is deeply unpopular, favored by less than 40 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of recent polling. And for good reason: Credible reports from nonpartisan agencies like the Congressional Budget Office and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predict that under Obamacare millions of people will lose their current insurance, pay higher premiums, and may even see their doctors stop accepting Medicare patients.
In other words, Truman could argue in 1948 that a vote for the Republicans would threaten the social welfare system the country knew and approved; but in 2012 the Republican nominee will be the one who can argue that a vote for Obama will endanger that system.
So, if President Obama cannot look to Truman for a model, where does that leave him? Essentially, he’s in uncharted territory. No incumbent president in the modern era has faced the kinds of trouble he now does—a weak economy combined with an exceedingly unpopular legislative record—and still won reelection.
That’s not to say he cannot win. Just because something has never been done before does not mean it cannot be done. And with 14 months until Election Day, there is plenty of uncertainty. A lot of things could still break Obama’s way: a third party challenge that steals votes from the GOP, a weak Republican nominee, a surprising rebound in the economy, or some national crisis that creates a “rally round the flag” effect.
The point is that the president is going to have to catch a break somewhere along the line—because he will lose, and by a large margin, if things continue on their present course. In this way, he’s like a Texas hold ’em player who was dealt a pair of diamonds. He has a shot to win with a flush, but he has to hope that the dealer draws another lucky card for him. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll lose.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.