Like baseball players taking comfort in rituals, in times of uncertainty politicians look to historical trends. For Barack Obama this week, those trends are a mixed bag.
In the modern era (meaning after 1936, when polling appeared in presidential politics), sitting presidents have had an excellent success rate in reelection. Eleven sitting presidents have run for reelection; three of them lost (Ford, Carter, George H.W. Bush) and one of them withdrew to avoid likely defeat (Johnson). That’s either a .636 or a .727 batting average, a pretty fair mark.
What’s more, each of these failed presidents faced a serious primary opponent. (The last incumbent president to lose without one was Herbert Hoover in 1932; he had enough trouble as it was.) There’s an outside chance that Obama could draw a challenge from the left—perhaps a Russ Feingold or a Howard Dean—based in large part on foreign policy dissent. But any such fight would be merely symbolic: President Obama enjoys monolithic support from black voters—on the day after the president’s agenda was nationally rebuffed, Obama carried a 96 percent approval rating among blacks. Since black voters make up a fifth of the Democratic primary electorate, it would be difficult for a Democratic challenger to make headway against Obama.
The news gets better for Obama when you look at the history of midterm defeats. Roosevelt endured two large midterm losses, one in 1938 (Republicans gained 75 seats in the House) and another four years later (the GOP gained 47 seats). He won reelection both times. In Truman’s first midterm, Republicans gained 55 seats; he later escaped with a 50 percent to 45 percent victory over Thomas Dewey.
After 1948 the picture becomes slightly muddled. In Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 midterm Republicans picked up 47 seats. Gerald Ford saw Democrats net 49 seats in his. Neither man was elected again. Yet Jimmy Carter lost only 14 House seats before losing to Reagan. Bill Clinton lost 54 seats and won reelection handily. So while a midterm blowout has policy implications, it is far from a predictor of the next presidential election.
There ends Obama’s good news. Against these bullish historical trends are set two very bearish ones. The first is that no president since FDR has run for reelection with the unemployment rate above 8 percent. And the outlook for 2012 is grim. The White House Office of Management and Budget projects 8.1 percent unemployment in 2012. So does the Congressional Budget Office. And those are the rosy scenarios. Other forecasters, from Goldman Sachs to the IMF, predict that the unemployment rate will be 10 percent in 2011 and only somewhat lower in 2012.
Of course, 24-month forecasts are a black box. Two years ago the Office of Management and Budget predicted that today’s unemployment rate would be 5.1 percent. Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the October unemployment level was 9.6 percent.
So what if it is high? Roosevelt won reelection in 1940 with unemployment at 14.6 percent. But that was a marked improvement from where it sat two years earlier, at 19 percent. Even if jobs were to mushroom over the next 24 months and the unemployment rate did drop to 8 percent, it would still be higher than it was when George W. Bush left office. People may not remember, but on the day Barack Obama was elected president, unemployment was 6.5 percent. In 2012 Republicans will remind everyone in America of this fact.
The final trend, however, is the most troubling for Obama, because it hints at an underlying problem with his presidency: Since FDR, no president has won reelection without enlarging his share of the popular vote.
Roosevelt was elected with 57 percent in 1932. He expanded his support to 61 percent four years later and saw it drop to a “mere” 55 percent in his third campaign. Since then, all successful reelections have featured an expansion of the president’s base. Eisenhower went from 55 percent to 57 percent; Nixon from 43 percent to 61 percent; Reagan from 51 percent to 59 percent; Clinton from 43 percent to 49 percent; George W. Bush from 48 percent to 51 percent.
These numbers suggest that an essential feature of successful presidents is that they find ways to broaden their coalitions. Doing the opposite—pursuing policies which shed support, but keep just enough of it to maintain a majority—is a very difficult needle to thread. How difficult? FDR in 1940 was the first president to do it since Andrew Jackson in 1832. And he had the Great Depression and World War II working in his favor and was starting from the second-highest popular-vote margin ever recorded.
Whatever one thinks of Obama’s political future, it is difficult to imagine him getting more than the 53 percent of the vote he commanded in 2008. For one thing, Obama’s first campaign was designed to allow him to be all things to all people. Almost by definition, his appeal cannot be broader than it was two years ago. And for another, Obama’s legislative agenda has dismantled his coalition with dazzling efficiency. He has lost support in every conceivable subgroup—from young voters to old, among both liberals and conservatives, among high school grads, college grads, and postgraduate professionals, too.
In order to win reelection, Obama must either dramatically reconfigure his presidency or titrate his loss of support in a manner so precise that only two American presidents have ever pulled it off. It’s difficult to tell which would be the tougher trick.
The other possibility, of course, is that he’s toast.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.