Obama’s Easy Re-election?

Not long ago Republicans were salivating over the prospect of making Obama a one term President. Hoping to stir up controversy within the Democratic party, some conservatives openly speculated that the Democrats would need Hillary Clinton to rescue them from Obama’s unpopularity. Just before the Midterms the Rasmussen daily tracking poll had Obama’s approval ratings below 45%, with disapproval above 55%. Worse for the President, the “strongly disapprove” was over 20 points higher than strongly approve. Obama, it appeared, had lost the magic.

On Monday Rasmussen’s poll showed Obama with 52% approval and 47% disapproving. Strongly disapprove still leads strongly approve, but only by 4 points. Other polls show Obama’s approval up near 55%, and where a month ago it was hard to find approval out polling disapproval in any poll, now all point in Obama’s direction. Many speculated that a successful State of the Union address would allow Obama to start on the road to regaining his popularity; that journey appears to have started even before tomorrow’s address.

To be sure, some of it had to do with his stellar performance in the wake of the Giffords shooting. His speech was praised by both the right and left as hitting the right, non-partisan tone. That fed into approval numbers which had been improving for the President steadily since November. Some of it can be attributed to Democrats “coming back” to the President. His low numbers were never a massive shift of opinion to the GOP; many liberal Democrats gave him failing marks for falling short of their expectations of a more partisan President. Repealing DADT, passing the new START and accomplishing quite a bit in the lame duck legislative session helped convince many that the President was bringing real change. But the shift is also due to independents giving Obama another chance. So does this mean he’s going to follow in the footsteps of Reagan and Clinton — go from a near death experience early in his first term to a cake walk re-election?

Obviously, it’s too early to tell.   If the economy does not improve, if scandal erupts, or things start going really bad in Afghanistan and Iraq, the President could suffer.   Yet there are reasons to think that the worst is over for Obama, at least in his first term.

One big reason is that for the next two years Obama can avoid controversy and appear “above the partisan fray” much of the time.   The Republicans have the House, so there is no pressure for the Democrats to move forward on the progressive agenda.   The President will not take on any more issues like health care or an economic stimulus that will create a partisan firestorm.    Yet the President won’t have to actively use the veto power to stop the Republicans, since Democrats in the Senate can block anything that the President doesn’t want to deal with.   The President can instead focus on what is popular with the American people, trying to “change the tone” and create compromise.  If the Republicans refuse, nothing will happen, and he can say “I’m trying.”

In essence, the President can focus less on trying to bring change in policy to focusing on change in tone.  He can fulfill the symbolic role of the Presidency in a manner designed to play to his positives and appear Presidential.  This pushes off any chance for opposition in the primaries, and can set the Obama campaign machine up for a strong run in 2012.   No campaign has ever had the success of the Obama team in 2008; it would be foolish to expect anything less than a massive and effective campaign in 2012.

The Republicans have one shot at Obama, but it’s a very risky one.   They could refuse to pass a budget that doesn’t conform to their demands of fiscal responsibility.   That is what the Republicans tried to do to President Clinton in 1995, and it backfired.  The resulting government shutdown appeared the work of Republicans unwilling to compromise or negotiate with the President in good faith.   While conservatives will disagree that the shut down was really their fault, that’s how it was perceived.

In 2011 that strategy is a long shot.   First, Obama still has the Senate riding interference.    Obama could start by proposing a budget to Congress that contains deficit reduction.    The Republicans would say that it doesn’t go far enough, and demand greater cuts.  In a show of “good cop/bad cop,” the Senate could balk, demanding that the House adhere more closely to the President’s budget request.  The President himself could intervene and offer compromises that appear to be siding with the GOP House, going farther to meet the Republicans “half way” than the Senate — while reminding the GOP and the country that holding only one house, the Republicans can’t demand it be their way or no way.   If the Presidents approval numbers stay reasonably high — if he remains popular — the GOP will have a hard time saying that 2010 was a mandate for them to hold firm.

This would leave the Republicans with a difficult choice.   They could decide to fight this out, shutting down government, and creating a crisis which they hope will get the country on their side.   But if they do that, they will find themselves risking seats in Congress and the Senate, even if it satisfies their base.   They could decide to do as they did in the lame duck session and reach a compromise.   That would probably be benefit the President, even if the base of the Democratic party would be upset (as would the GOP base).   Finally, they could choose not to go the mattresses on this, but instead give in, saying that they will bring the issue to the public in 2012.   That might be the best strategy, though if Obama has momentum, it won’t be a game changer.

The Republicans also have rifts in their party wider than those in the Democratic party.  Feuding between “tea partiers” and “establishment Republicans” would only serve to weaken their message (or make it incomprehensible).    The goal could ultimately be to hang on to the House and try to make inroads in the Senate rather than getting the White House in 2012.   Moreover, Republican leaders have to consider that the 2016 climate within the country and the GOP might call for a far different message than it did in 2010 — and if they can guess where that will be, smart ones can position themselves well in 2012.

Simply, just as the political waves shifted towards the GOP in 2009, there are signs that 2011 is seeing a shift towards Obama and the Democrats.   It likely won’t be enough to win the Democrats back the House, but the triumph felt by the GOP in November may give way to the same kind of reality check that the Democratic optimism of 2008 had to endure.  The wild card, of course, is the economy.   If growth and jobs start coming back, Obama will benefit greatly.  If the country falls back into recession or job growth stays stagnant, Republicans will have a golden opportunity if they can field the right candidate.   But right now Obama appears in the drivers’ seat, having weathered a political storm in 2010.   Yet as we know, political winds can shift on a dime.

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  1. #1 by pino on January 25, 2011 - 02:32

    On Monday Rasmussen’s poll showed Obama with 52% approval and 47% disapproving. Strongly disapprove still leads strongly approve, but only by 4 points.

    He has enjoyed a very strong end to 2010 with continued success in the young 2011. The oil spill ended and we forgot about it and he has cooled on many policy changes since his big victories. And, as you mentioned, the lame duck session was very successful for him. It’ll be interesting to see if this is the new normal or a bounce.

    The goal could ultimately be to hang on to the House and try to make inroads in the Senate rather than getting the White House in 2012.

    I have a feeling that this will be the way forward. The Republicans don’t have a clear cut front-runner [though this early is there such a thing] strong enough to compete with Obama. I’d be happy with continued success in the House and winning more seats in the Senate.

  2. #2 by classicliberal2 on January 25, 2011 - 22:51

    A few things:

    Forget current polls. The polls of today are of no relevance to what will happen after nearly two more years of history and a long campaign season in 2012.

    Forget, in particular, Rasmussen polls. It’s a partisan polling firm run by a fellow who, among other things, departs from accepted methodology–he basically monkeys with it in various ways in order to heavily weight all of his results in favor of Republicans. If they say Obama has a 52% approval rating one day, it was probably closer to 60% that day.

    Basic fact: In order to defeat Obama, Republicans are going to have to nominate a candidate who can beat him, and here, they have a big problem, because the sane have abandoned the Republican party in droves, leaving the activist core, the–let’s just call them what they are–crazies who raged against lifelong uber-conservative John McCain as a “RINO” and even a “liberal.” This base of crazies will, in the primaries, fight, tooth and nail, against any candidate who isn’t a crazed reactionary. No such candidate has any chance of winning the general, though. Finding any single candidate will, alone, be tricky. One that can defeat Obama (meaning one that can attract a much larger audience than just the crazies) will be quite a trick indeed.

    Republicans won’t be plagued, at the polls, by an enthusiasm gap, though–they’ll grumble until the earth trembles, but, at the end of the day, they’re lock-steppers.

    The same can’t be said of the Democrats. Honestly, Scott, for all the first-rate blogging (and thinking) you do, here, you often seem like an utter babe-in-the-woods, when it comes to practical politics. This…

    “…for the next two years Obama can avoid controversy and appear ‘above the partisan fray’ much of the time. The Republicans have the House, so there is no pressure for the Democrats to move forward on the progressive agenda. The President will not take on any more issues like health care or an economic stimulus that will create a partisan firestorm. Yet the President won’t have to actively use the veto power to stop the Republicans, since Democrats in the Senate can block anything that the President doesn’t want to deal with. The President can instead focus on what is popular with the American people, trying to ‘change the tone’ and create compromise. If the Republicans refuse, nothing will happen, and he can say ‘I’m trying.'”

    …is a strategy for a MASSIVE defeat. Obama’s problem, now, isn’t with Republicans. It’s with his own base, and the reason he’s been bleeding, there, is because the agenda he has adopted, since election, is that of a conservative Republican, and he has absolutely refused to fight with the Republicans over anything, while being quite enthusiastic about selling out his own base at every opportunity. He does the latter as a first step in every legislative battle. He does it in exchange for nothing. And then, he and his minions publicly bash their base over and over again. Obama’s efforts to “create compromise” with people who made it loudly apparent, right from the beginning, that they weren’t going to compromise about anything,[1] created the Democratic “enthusiasm gap,” and proved to be the Republicans’ greatest ally in 2010. Democrats stayed home in droves. If Obama plays this game you suggest, one of sitting on his ass and making a grand show of being “above the partisan fray,” instead of doing something, anything, to reconnect with his people, he’s finished. As it turns out, it looks as if he has opted for an even worse option: already well to the right of the public on just about everything, he’s lurching even further to the right. He bore the stench of a one-termer before he was ever sworn in. By now, it’s become so thick that one loses nose-hairs with every breath. “I’m trying” doesn’t work as a campaign slogan, and isn’t going to win ANYTHING.

    [1] Most of the legislative proposals Obama has endorsed as his own were Republican proposals, which the Republicans–including those who actually authored the legislation in question–abandoned, to a man. In the wake of the 2010 elections, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, has already publicly stated, more than once, that the goal of the party is to make sure Obama is a one-termer.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on January 26, 2011 - 19:44

      But with the GOP having a large majority in the House, Obama really can’t accomplish anything new on his agenda. I also think the idea that the base will desert Obama in 2012 is misguided. Most polls I’ve seen show him keeping his base, but losing independents. It’s them that he will say “I’m trying to work with the GOP, but they are refusing.” Independents want problem solving, if they see the Republicans as the obstacle, they’ll desert them.

      • #4 by classicliberal2 on January 26, 2011 - 23:49

        Scott, if the “independents” haven’t seen Republicans as “the obstacle” yet, nothing that happens in the next two years is going to phase them. Everything in congress–and that’s an almost literal “everything”–is filibustered by Republicans in the Senate. They even filibuster procedural motions on bills they intend to support, just because it brings things to a stop.

        Don’t confuse an approval rating with a willingness to actually turn up and vote for Democrats. There was no sudden groundswell in support of reactionary Republican policies in 2010. Republicans took the House because of that “enthusiasm gap.” Republicans WILL turn up in force for the opportunity to rid themselves of Obama and the Democrats. If the Obama doesn’t give his people any reason to bother with him, he’s finished.

      • #5 by pino on January 27, 2011 - 01:38

        But with the GOP having a large majority in the House, Obama really can’t accomplish anything new on his agenda.

        This is true. The large sweeping liberal legislation is over.

        I also think the idea that the base will desert Obama in 2012 is misguided.

        Obama won due to massive voter turnout in demographics that are tough to motivate. In large part, it was much like an American Idol election. There are serious doubts he can do that again.

      • #6 by pino on January 27, 2011 - 01:43

        if the “independents” haven’t seen Republicans as “the obstacle” yet,

        I’m pretty sure that Independents don’t see either party as the solution. What was clear, however, is that they saw the Democrats as ore dangerous than the Republicans.

        Everything in congress–and that’s an almost literal “everything”–is filibustered by Republicans in the Senate.

        I agree; the Republicans did filibuster a lot. I, for one, am hoping that Senate rules are changed to enable the majority party more ability to bring things for a vote. The Democrats, understanding that they will be in the minority at some point, will enact rules that restrict the Senate Leader from “filling the tree” as they say, with his own amendments preventing the minority from adding their own.

        Again, the Republicans DID filibuster a ton, but they were never given the opportunity of fair debate with the ability to amend bills. The nastiness in the last session was due to yuckiness on both sides of the aisle.

  3. #7 by Scott Erb on January 27, 2011 - 02:00

    Pino – voter turnout in 2008 was the same as it was in 2004 overall. There was a slight decrease in GOP turnout, and increase in Democratic turnout, but a lot of people were surprised that overall the turn out trends were not that different. I don’t think it’s true that Obama won by bringing out new voters. The one group that did increase was young voters, whose participation increased anywhere from 1 to 5% depending on the exit poll. These were over 60% for Obama, so that could be a significant group. If they do decide not to vote Obama in 2012 (that cohort will be older, to be sure) Obama would lose some support. But 2012 will have its own dynamic. I wouldn’t bet against the Obama campaign machine, they came from nowhere in 2008.

    2010 also was interesting in that the electorate was very different than 2008. It was older, whiter, and more Republican. If that persists into 2012, then classicliberal’s point is right — Obama is in trouble. But that could also be a result of it being an non-Presidential election. It’s too early to know for sure. It’ll also be interesting to see the dynamics in the Senate.

    • #8 by classicliberal2 on January 27, 2011 - 06:50

      Overall turnout as a percentage of eligible voters wasn’t that different between 2004 and 2008, but the composition of the electorate did change. The exit polls are all a bit different, of course. From my notes, turnout in the 18-29-year-old demographic was 54.5% in 2008, the second-largest young-voter turnout in the history of the U.S. (falling short of the all-time record set in 1972 by less than 1%). Those voters went for Obama by a margin of 66%-33%–literally the most one-sided youth vote in the U.S. since polling began. In 2010, by contrast, only 20.4% of this demographic turned out (Tufts University numbers). That isn’t just an incredible drop from 2008–it’s a big drop from the 2006 midterms, when 23.5% of the demographic turned out.

      That’s the enthusiasm gap.

      (The percentage of black, Latino and Asian voters all markedly increased in 2008. All three groups skewed very heavily toward Obama, and all three groups saw large dropoffs in 2010–it should be said that there is overlap between this and the youth vote, and I don’t have a breakdown in my notes detailing how much that vote accounts for the change, and I’m being lazy by not looking it up)

  4. #9 by classicliberal2 on January 27, 2011 - 08:01

    Pino, back in 1995, when Republicans took over both houses of congress (by much slimmer margins that Democrats had after 2008), they systematically destroyed any opportunity for meaningful participation, by Democrats, in the legislative process. Bills debated under “open rules” became as rare as honest politicians, and it didn’t do a whole lot of good to send a bill through the proper committee process when, after it was voted out, the Republicans on the rules committee would re-write it in the middle of the night, then push the rewrite through (often also in the middle of the night) without even bothering to tell anyone what they’d doing. Conference committees are supposed to be bipartisan, but became the province of a handful of Republicans, who would literally lock Democrats out of the room. When Democratic members requested the use of committee rooms for hearings, they found themselves assigned closets. Under Clinton, Republican committees wasted millions on fruitless, ginned-up “investigations” of the administration, and even went through an impeachment proceeding; when Bush came to power, congressional oversight came to a halt–not a single significant hearing for as long as they controlled congress. Even staunch Republicans like Bob Barr began objecting to the way his own party was running things, after the “compromise” USA PATRIOT bill worked out between the parties in committee was thrown out in the middle of the night by Republicans on the Rules committee, who reinstituted the rejected original, unamended Bush language. These sorts of things had no precedent in any previous Democratic-controlled congress. A news item from the mid-Bush years:
    http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/10/03/the_globes_major_findings/
    It’s worth nothing that in the last six years Republicans behaved this way, they didn’t have an Obama–a nice, gentle let’s-all-get-along president who bent over backwards to accommodate the other party in his policy proposals. They had a reactionary slug who recognized no limits on his own power, and expected congress to act as his rubber stamp, which is exactly what they did.

    So it would be fair to say Democrats did give Republicans a taste of their own medicine in the last two years, but honestly, it was only a little taste. Republicans, after two years of complaining, are now running the House again, and they’re taking up right where they left off. One of their first legislative efforts was health-care repeal, a bill for which they held no hearings, submitted to no committee vote (or even consideration), and didn’t allow it to be amended. Called on their hypocrisy, they said their victory in November meant the public had litigated the matter. Somehow, this reasoning didn’t apply to the much larger Democratic majority that had won in 2008, but don’t expect anyone in the press to point that out to them very loudly.

    I dislike looking as if I’m defending the Democrats (and, honestly, I’m going through a very bad time right now, and I’m not up to any of what I’ve been writing about anyway), but on this one, they’re definitely the lesser of two evils by a very wide margin.

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