Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Ahead, For Now

Unemployment is up, now to 9.1%, and the widespread belief that Barack Obama will be re-elected President has been called into question.

Not quite so for The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart who, though conceding that the economy may actually worsen and imperil the incumbent's re-election, argues that Obama still should be a heavy favorite to occupy the oval Office in 2013.

Beinart notes that each prominent GOP contender or would-be contender has one or more serious handicaps. Of the two most likely nominees, Beinart asserts that Tim Pawlenty appears to much of the public not to be "up to the job" while Mitt Romney is not perceived widely as "a person of conviction" or "able to relate to ordinary Americans." Credit Beinart with this- unlike the Washington Post's Dan Balz and Jon Cohen or other pundits, he does not cite "overall dissatisfaction with the GOP field." Barack Obama will not have the luxury of running against Romney-Pawlenty-Bachmann-Perry-Huntsman-Palin-Gingrich-Cain-Santorum-Palin et al. He will be faced off against one, whose image when will be vastly enhanced by his (yes, his) successful navigation of the maze of primaries and caucuses. At that point, he no longer will be some ex-governor or ex-congressman but the victorious nominee of a major political party.

But Beinart focuses his argument on an analogy with President Bush's re-election, when Americas were in "a sour mood" but voters re-elected the incumbent because

people’s feelings about him outpaced their feelings about the state of the country. Despite saying the country was on the wrong track, a slight majority of Americans approved of his job performance, and he was reelected by essentially that margin.

For what it's worth- and, admittedly, it's not worth much, given that its only a snapshot- President Obama's approval ratings are now 50% while at the same point in his first term, President Bush's number was 62%. And this was reported by Gallup from a survey taken May 30-June 5, post-bin Laden (truly, post bin Laden) and, aside from one day, before release of the latest, gruesome unemployment figures.

Typically, right track-wrong track numbers track fairly closely with the perceived state of the economy and Beinart contends

Throughout the summer and fall of 2004, a clear majority of Americans said the country was on the wrong track. The numbers, in fact, were only marginally better then than they are now.

On October 25,2004, however, ABC News reported "fifty-five percent of likely voters say the country is on the wrong track." By contrast, Balz and Cohen report that a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken June2-June 5 indicates "by 2 to 1, Americans say the country is pretty seriously on the wrong track." (Seriously on the wrong track? And what percentage opted for "laughingly" on the wrong track? Seriously, folks, this is The Washington Post!)

Results of the poll, Balz-Cohen observe (observes?) "continue to rate the economy in negative terms. Nearly six in 10 say the economy has not started to recover, regardless of what official statistics may say, and most of those who say it has improved rate the recovery as weak." Those are nasty numbers- but they may get worse. While commenting not on the prospects for Obama's re-election but for the economy generally, Dean Baker notes

there are more factors pointing to slower growth than faster growth going forward. In addition to the state and local cuts kicking in next month, the new fiscal year for the federal government begins October 1. This is also likely to involve further cuts in spending. And the payroll tax cut is scheduled to end 3 months later, as is the extension of unemployment benefits. At some point, the pain of high unemployment across the country may lead to some new thinking in Washington, but until that time, welcome to the second Great Depression.

There is another chink in comparing 2012 to 2004. Unlike in 2004, the incumbent President on the ballot in 2012 will not have the advantage of a raft of state referenda boosting his bid. In November, 2004, individuals in eleven states voted on measures to ban gay marriage- and all eleven passed. GWB would have captured the electoral votes of Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah even without the highly popular measure. But he could not have been re-elected without Ohio, in which the Republican prevailed by only 2.1% while the marriage ban passed 62%-38%. Some analysts (not all) believe only this enabled the incumbent to carry Ohio. Your opinion, like mileage, may vary.

Barack Obama still is a favorite to be re-elected. In match-ups with possible opponents over the past year, he has come out anywhere from slightly behind to well ahead and will amass a campaign war chest far exceeding that which he had in 2008, itself a record. With the elimination of Osama binLaden, it will be difficult (though not impossible) to cast the Democrat as soft on foreign enemies, as Republicans are wont to do. His Administration has been virtually, if not completely, scandal-free. While the White House employs a "to scare your core voters about the other side" (as Beinart puts it) tactic, the President will continue to occupy the ideological center of American politics.

This should count with independents- and will need to. Because when an incumbent is as dismissive of his core supporters as this President is, enthusiasm of the base will suffer and he will be dependent upon independents recognizing that he is one of them, and his opponents well beyond the mainstream.

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