Hey, President Obama has formally announced his re-election bid! I’ve added the exclamation mark to help ratchet up the excitement.
It has been a long and difficult slog since Inauguration Day, so I’m going to assume that the looming inevitability of another presidential campaign is about as welcome as the prospect of trace radioactive elements in your milk. Still, attention must be paid. If you’re not up for pondering Obama’s current victory odds, no problem, I’ll do it for you. Here are the seven easy-to-read factors:
l Incumbency. Care to guess how many Democratic presidents have been defeated for a second term in the last 120 years? A grand total of one. That fact alone has prompted Matthew Dowd, the Republican pollster for George W. Bush, to conclude that “the odds heavily favor President Obama.” Incumbents are tough to beat, and this one will be raising and spending roughly $1 billion.
Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll reports that 47 percent of Americans favor Obama’s re-election, while 37 percent want someone from the other party; his numbers are virtually identical to Bush’s numbers in April 2003 (the same point in the election calendar) — and way better than Bill Clinton’s numbers in March 1995. Plus, Obama’s job-approval rating is higher than Ronald Reagan’s rating in April 1983. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan all won second terms.
l The economy. Obama-haters see him as a one-termer, a casualty of the Great Recession, in the mode of Jimmy Carter (the only defeated Democrat these last 120 years). But Carter’s economy in 1980 was considerably worse. The big measure that year was the so-called Misery Index — the jobless rate plus the inflation rate equaled 21.9 percent. Obama’s current Misery Index is a mere 10.9 percent, and economists expect it to shrink further. If voters (especially in the critical Rust Belt states) perceive that the economy is improving — and even GOP-friendly economists see the jobless rate dropping below 8 percent by Election Day — Obama is well-poised to benefit.
l Foreign crises. In the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, this is the big “unknown unknown.” Perhaps Obama will screw up somewhere just as badly as Carter did when he ordered the ill-fated mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Voters remember that kind of visceral failure. Short of that, Obama has to keep a lid on the bad guys abroad and ideally ensure that we are capably fighting no more than several wars at one time.
l Rallying the troops. I’m referring here not to the troops abroad but to the Democratic troops at home. Obama needs to rekindle the ’08 grassroots energy; it may not be so easy the second time around. In his campaign message to the base last week, he offered no soaring rhetoric about hope and change; instead, he said: “We’ve always known that lasting change wouldn’t come quickly or easily. It never does.”
Given the hard realities of governing in polarized Washington, and Obama’s various capitulations (Guantanamo is still open, the GOP is winning on budget cuts), can he stoke fresh enthusiasm among the young, minorities, women, and white liberals — all of whom are needed to offset his ongoing weakness among whites in general?
l The Republicans. It speaks volumes about the sorry state of the GOP that reality TV star Donald Trump can fulminate about the phony birth-certificate issue and wind up, in a new national poll, tied for second place in the 2012 Republican trial heats. It speaks volumes that the top aspirant, Mitt Romney, garners support from only 20 percent of the party electorate. The GOP hasn’t been this leaderless since Wendell Willkie came out of nowhere to win the nomination in 1940.
Plus, thanks to tea party and birther pressure, the eventual nominee may well be too conservative for the independent swing voters. Obama’s vulnerabilities notwithstanding, you can’t beat something with nothing.
l The sleeping giant. That’s the traditional nickname for the Hispanic electorate; for years we’ve tracked its inexorable growth, awaiting proof of its clout. The proof has arrived, courtesy of the new U.S. Census. On the presidential election map, Hispanic voters, by dint of their numbers, are increasingly crucial in such states as Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Arizona, and Georgia. Obama, buoyed by landslide Hispanic support in 2008, won all those states except the last two.
The Republican candidate, whoever it is, will need to trim Obama’s Hispanic margin, but given the GOP’s woeful track record with minorities, and its frequent anti-immigrant outbursts, I suspect the party will again fare poorly with America’s fastest-growing electorate. If I were counseling the Republicans, I’d suggest tapping Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for the vice-presidential slot (key state, ethnic bonding — a twofer!), but for some reason the GOP has not called me lately for advice.
l Likability. Granted, an election is too important to be a personality contest. But don’t kid yourself, this stuff matters. People liked Reagan back in the day, even when they fundamentally disagreed with his take on issues. People like Obama today, regardless of the issues. All the polls say so; in an Associated Press survey last month, 84 percent of Americans said he was likable (a number so huge that it presumably includes some of the people who think he was born in Kenya or Indonesia).
And Obama’s team is taking full advantage. The campaign announcement video features a North Carolina white guy who says: “I don’t agree with Obama on everything. But I respect him and I trust him.” That message is aimed straight at the independent swing voters who often weigh likability as much as the issues. Indeed, Dowd, the aforementioned Bush pollster, says the GOP needs a “new brand” candidate who can neutralize Obama’s charisma. Is Romney more likable? Is Tim Pawlenty? Trump and his hair?
So, in the absence of the unforeseeable, we can probably expect Obama to prevail, perhaps eking it out by a margin akin to Bush’s squeaker in 2004 — the narrowest reelection win since 1916, and a likely template for the polarized politics of the 21st century. The result, whatever it is, will naturally solve nothing; we’ll all keep arguing. Yet somehow we’ll muddle through. We always do.