At this point in 2007 a few things were virtually certain about the 2008 Presidential race. First, we knew who the Democratic candidate would be. Hillary Clinton was the presumptive nominee, a front runner so far ahead in money, endorsements, “super delegates” and polling support that as long as she didn’t collapse in scandal the race in the Democratic party was to see who might be the Vice Presidential nominee. Barack Obama was a possibility, though he lacked experience.
John McCain, after appearing to be a darling of the media in the past, had faded. His support for immigration reform was a nail in his coffin in terms of getting GOP support, and he was all but written off. Mitt Romney, Rudy Guilliani and Fred Thompson were getting more buzz.
Of course, McCain ultimately cruised to the GOP nomination despite active opposition from talk radio jocks and the right wing of the party. Hillary Clinton was shocked by upstart Barack Obama, and the two fought a long, sometimes bitter and for political junkies extremely entertaining battle for the Democratic nomination.
In June 2007 most people assumed the Iraq war would be a major issue in 2008. And while some people were warning that the sub prime debacle and housing bubble could portend a major recession, most thought that the economic slow down might be over by late 2008 and wouldn’t be a major factor.
Well, the world changed tremendously between June 2007 and November 2008!
Right now President Obama looks reasonably strong against a relatively weak Republican field, yet vulnerable due to economic woes. His success in ordering the assassination of Osama Bin Laden exist alongside an unpopular intervention in Libya and on going conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
By mid 2012, things could be much different. First, a Republican nominee could emerge that captures the attention and support of independent voters. Jon Huntsman seems the most plausible choice to fill that role, but if you look way back to June 1979, the Carter White House thought Ronald Reagan would be the weakest candidate they could face, and if you told George Bush in June 1991, still enjoying high post-Desert Storm ratings, that Bill Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, he’d have known his re-election was assured. The idea that the GOP field is weak is pure speculation, in hindsight it may appear strong.
On the other hand, the economy could bounce back. Oil prices are dropping, which means gas prices will fall and that will stimulate the economy. Uncertainty over the debt ceiling and other issues may be slowing the economy, and once resolved, late 2011 could see some good economic news. If that’s the case, the dark fears of a double dip recession may give way to “Morning in America II,” as Obama cruises on good economic news to victory. Romney reminds me of Mondale in some ways.
If the economy does slip into double dip recession, Obama’s chances start to decline dramatically, as few Presidents have ever governed during four years of recession and kept their jobs. You have to go back to Roosevelt for that. To be sure, Obama didn’t cause this recession, and it’s a stretch to say he’s done anything to prevent recovery. We’re suffering 30 years of imbalances that can’t be cured over night, or perhaps even over four years. But that’s a case that will be difficult if not impossible for Obama to make in 2012. If the economy isn’t looking better, he’s likely to suffer the same fate as Bush the Elder and Jimmy Carter. The assassination of Bin Laden will be as helpful to him as Desert Storm was for Bush.
I’d be shocked if Gadaffi is still holding out in Libya by the end of this year. If Libya appears a success — the rebels overthrow Gadaffi and are reasonably successful at creating a government that is neither extremist nor anti-western, what now is a liability for Obama may become an asset. If the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan continue with no major setbacks, Obama’s foreign policy could well be a strong point, perhaps enough to keep him competitive even if the economy remains sluggish.
Of course, setbacks in Iraq or Afghanistan, a shocking reversal of fortune in Libya, or crises in Iran and Pakistan could create problems. The Mideast is unpredictable. Another terror attack could help or hurt Obama, depending on what it is and how it gets handled. Instability is a liability for a sitting President.
It does seem unlikely that Obama will face a serious challenge in the primaries. Still, depending on the economy and foreign policy, even that could change. Simply, it’s too early to have a real clue on how the election will go. Obama’s campaign team is proven, can raise money and get out the vote. That will probably be enough to make it a competitive election, but in and of itself not enough to win.
So at this point predictions are predictable. Republican leaning pundits will write columns predicting Obama’s demise and try to paint him as the return of Jimmy Carter. Many will believe it, others are trying to shape the discourse. Democrats will do the reverse, mock the Republican field and make it sound as if Obama has a relatively easy course ahead. I suspect fewer of them believe it, until the economy picks up Democrats are worried about the election.
In Congress there is similar uncertainty. Democrats won the special election in New York that had appeared safe for the GOP, thanks to public reaction to GOP plans to cut medicare. This is the kind of seat Democrats would have to win a few of to get back the 24 seats necessary to bring Nancy Pelosi back into the office of Speaker of the House. That is possible — 24 seats aren’t that much, and given the turn out dynamics in a Presidential election, a number of districts are almost certain to shift back to the Democrats.
On the other hand, the Senate could swing to the Republicans if bad economic news persists in 2012 – the Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats, while the Republicans will only be trying to hold on to 10. Senators don’t go down to defeat often, but the Republicans need only pick up four to get the majority, and that’s the same number of Democratic incumbents who have so far announced their retirement.
A victory for Obama with the Democrats holding the Senate and bouncing back to retake the House?
A victory for a Republican with the Republicans holding the House and taking the Senate?
Both are in my opinion equally plausible. Statistically the latter is more likely than the former because 24 seats in the House is tough. But there is so much uncertainty at this point that anyone making confident predictions is either faking it or a bit deluded. It’s simply too early to have much of a sense of what 2012 will bring.