One of the most persistent political maxims is that a presidential re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent.
That doesn’t augur well for President Barack Obama — at least not based on recent trends and polls. His job approval is hovering 10 points below the traditional 50 percent dividing line between security and trouble, the jobless rate remains stuck around 9 percent, and Democrats everywhere seem on the defensive, if not in outright panic, after their latest special-election loss.
But consider this contrary maxim that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, recently tried out on reporters: “He’s not running against the Almighty, he’s running against an alternative.”
Whether Democrats actually feel that optimistic — or are just hoping for the best — O’Malley’s remark characterizes how many of them see Obama’s 2012 prospects.
The idea of this all being about “choice” encourages Democrats as they watch Republican contenders try to outdo one another in appealing to their party’s conservative wing.
The White House is calculating that, when voters see the differences between where Obama wants to take the country and where Republicans would go, the president will come out ahead at the ballot box. Just as polls last summer showed Americans favored the president’s balanced approach to budget-cutting, recent ones show they support the job creation program he proposed two weeks ago.
A Gallup poll last week showed Americans, by a 3-to-2 margin, want their congressional representatives to vote for Obama’s plan; independents backed it by a similar margin. Though other surveys conveyed skepticism about whether Obama’s proposal will pass, Republican Sen. James DeMint of South Carolina suggested Obama might win — politically — without passage.
“If we vote for this plan, we’ll own the economy with the president and he desperately needs someone else to blame it on,” DeMint said. “If we vote against it, he’s going to try to say Congress blocked his ability to create jobs.”
This week, Obama took another step to define the potential 2012 choice and put Republicans on the political defensive with a deficit reduction plan that makes both substantive and political sense. Polls show most Americans support two of its most significant premises: spending cuts and tax increases are both necessary, and wealthy Americans must pay higher taxes to make the system fair.
In addition, GOP leaders may be playing into Obama’s hands by branding proposals that even most Republicans support as “class warfare,” which simply accentuates the differences between the parties and places the GOP firmly on the less popular side. While the disputes about job creation and debt reduction are ostensibly between Obama and GOP lawmakers, the party’s leading presidential candidates all share the congressional Republican position.
In assessing how this might play out next year, consider some parallels between Obama’s situation and the one President Jimmy Carter faced in 1980. Like Carter, Obama faces an angry electorate at a time of economic uncertainty. His poll numbers are less than ideal, and even many supporters concede his presidency has failed to meet expectations. Throughout 1980, reporters found many disillusioned voters who were abandoning Carter — and hardly anyone switching to the embattled president.
But polls didn’t reflect the anecdotal evidence and showed Carter holding his own or even slightly ahead until late in the campaign. Only after their only scheduled television debate did Republican challenger Ronald Reagan convince Americans that he’d be an acceptable alternative to the incumbent. He won comfortably.
Obama has some advantages over Carter; for example, he almost certainly won’t face a crippling primary fight like the one Carter waged with Sen. Edward Kennedy. Just as important, polls show voters still like Obama.
Those polls may well offer legitimate hope that accentuating the differences between his policies and those of the Republicans will create a choice in which he is the more acceptable alternative.