In 1983 President Reagan was considered a lame duck. His approval ratings were below 40%, and the “Reagan revolution” of tax cutting and decreased regulation had not fixed the economy, and was yielding ever higher federal budget deficits. In 1994 President Clinton’s goose was cooked. The GOP had taken the Congress with its “Contract For America,” and Clinton’s approval ratings were hovering around 40%. The visceral attacks on the President made it hard to remember the joyous “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” celebrations of two years earlier, when it seemed that Clinton would mark a new era in American politics.
Today President Obama’s approval ratings remain consistently in the upper 40s, better than both Clinton’s and Reagan’s at the time. In hindsight, it seems inevitable that Clinton and Reagan would turn it around. Their Presidencies are spun so positively by their party faithful that most forget how weak they looked after two or three years in office. Is an Obama come back just as inevitable?
Probably. First, the election of 2010 brought a different electorate to the polls than came in 2008. It was older, whiter, more conservative, and more Republican. That’s almost always the case in off year elections, and in 2008 minority voting increased dramatically due to the Obama candidacy. In 2012 as the Obama campaign machine gets rolling, expect it to use the marketing techniques so effective in 2008 to arouse the base and those voters who may have been enthusiastic in 2008 but sat out 2010.
In that, the victory of the GOP in the House is a blessing in disguise for the President. He won’t get more of his agenda passed, but the Republicans can’t really pass anything either, unless Obama and the Democratic Senate approve. He can push initiatives that will benefit his campaign, with GOP opposition to blame for its failure.
For example, Harry Reid’s support of immigration reform is credited with giving him his surprisingly easy victory in the Nevada Senate race. This brought Latino voters to the polls in very high numbers for an off year election. Imagine a heated immigration debate in which the Democrats support reform, and some Republicans respond with overly vicious rhetoric that insults Latinos. The Democrats can tell Latinos that they were the ones trying to make change, but the GOP stopped them — and stopped them because of prejudice.
But won’t that hurt the Democrats with white independent voters? Probably not. The anti-immigration reform bark is worse than its bite. Senator McCain’s support for such reform made him a pariah among conservatives in 2007, yet he still won the Republican nomination. Bloggers on the right were predicting that immigration would be the biggest issue in the 2008 campaign, but it was hardly mentioned. Simply, this issue has limited salience in elections with multiple issues in play. Only Latinos are likely to see this as a voting issue, and if the Democrats can score big with them, it makes the GOP candidate’s job much more difficult. Also, if this is a 2011 issue, it will be old news by 2012 for most voters, though Latinos are likely to remember.
Another issue is continuing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (earning above $250,000 a year). This adds hundreds of billions to the deficit each year, and is unlikely to result in increased revenues or much economic stimulus. Tax cuts are a very ineffective form of stimulus, in that they often go to pay back debt, or to consume foreign produced goods. Perhaps China lobbied for the tax cuts to remain to stimulate their economy!
But while the left is upset for Obama “giving in,” and the right claims victory, the deal they reached to have the cuts expire in 2012 assures this will be a campaign issue. Moreover, it’s an issue that doesn’t lock Obama into one position. He can choose his position based on the circumstances in 2012, while the Republicans are clearly locked into the notion that the tax cuts should remain permanent.
President Obama could make the argument that the deficit is a major problem, and must be brought under control. Republicans will agree. He can make some cuts that get some folk on the left upset, Republicans and independents will cheer. He will then call for the tax cuts on those earning over $250,000 to be revoked, and the GOP will complain, “no, that will hurt the economy.”
President Obama can then tell the American people, “look, government spending stimulates the economy, even more effectively than tax cuts. But the problem of the large federal debt is such that we can’t simply defend all tax cuts and all government spending by saying it helps the economy. That kind of thinking — go into debt because it’s good for the economy — gave us this problem. Those earning more than $250,000 can afford paying a little more, just as some who benefit from the programs being cut will have to get buy with a little less. The Republicans can’t demand budget cuts for the sake of the deficit while defending low taxes for the richest amongst us.” Positioned that way, the argument will be political gold.
If the economy is bouncing back, Obama will be able to ride that wave, and like Clinton and Reagan, coast to an easy re-election. If the economy is still down, which is possible (this situation is far worse than was the case in 1982 or 1994), the Republicans may have a shot. If they choose a pragmatist, keep the tea party on the margins, and offer a new vision, Obama could be in trouble. I’m not sure the GOP is in a position to do this, the moderates seem to fear the activists, and the extremists have a lot of internal power. Moreover, establishment moderates like Romney don’t offer a new vision — they have to find someone who has a compelling vision that breaks new ground. Such Republicans are out there, but can one win the Presidential nomination?
But even so, Obama will have the upper hand. Republicans may think the winds are blowing their way now, but so did the Democrats at this time in 2008. The winds shift. Pressure is on the GOP to work with the President to solve problems; they’ll either be seen as obstructionist or they’ll share responsibility for the outcomes. Nothing is truly inevitable in politics, but President Obama’s position is a lot stronger than many people realize.