Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I'm Betting Obama is a One-Term President

According to the smart observers of the American presidential campaign, President Barack Obama is maintaining a statistically insignificant national 2-point lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. When one looks at the battleground states, there seems to be a slight advantage in electoral college results to Obama, projected around 330-208 (certainly a comfortable margin). The thoughtful FiveThirtyEight blog is currently indicating a better than 60% likelihood that Obama will win the November election. We are still a few weeks away from the national conventions, with 3 presidential and one vice-presidential debates to come thereafter. The campaign hasn't really begun.
Back in late 2011, before the Republican field had been winnowed down, I made a bet with one of my colleagues, and another with one of my former students, that BHO will be a one-term president. I think I made the first bet when Texas Governor Rick Perry was the flavor of the week. Even back then I was fairly certain that Romney would be the Republican nominee, but I wasn't counting on that. I was instead relying on three other factors, which I believe are still in play here in July.
First - the economy. It is a well-known historical fact that no modern post-WWII incumbent has been reelected when the unemployment rate is above 7.2%. As we have seen, the employment numbers this summer are stalled out in the low 8's, with no indication of a dramatic change in the offing. Unless the undecideds conclude that 8.0+% unemployment is the new "normal," I expect that the unemployment gauge (and all it portends about the health of the economy) is sufficiently determinant. People may like BHO, but conclude that despite having inherited an economic disaster from his predecessor, he is incapable of managing the American economy and the politics it has produced.
Reelection and Consumer Confidence
Second - what I call the "perfect storm" argument. I believe the 2008 election cycle generated a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed an inexperienced first-term black junior senator from Illinois to win the presidency, a concatenation of circumstances which will not be repeated in 2012. That 2008 campaign was conducted against the backdrop of a nightmare collapse of the US banking system and the American automotive industry, all tied in the public perception to the ineptitude of the Republican White House. Furthermore, the elder Republican nominee went "rogue" and selected an unvetted VP who was simply not up to the task, setting off alarms amongst undecided voters. Finally, there was the symbolic and tantalizing promise that by accepting a black President, the American voter could shake off centuries of racism in a single private act in the ballot box. This perfect storm was enough to give BHO a 53-47 popular vote victory and a 365-173 electoral vote victory.
But that perfect storm does not exist in 2012. The economy is anemic but not in apocalyptic crisis. Mitt Romney will certainly pick a reassuring VP candidate. And having crossed the racial Rubicon in 2008, American voters will now treat race as a non-issue, and will judge the incumbent on other considerations.
Finally - the question of leadership. I will accept the argument that Obama has been acceptably good on foreign and national security affairs, and I think the American electorate accepts that this is the case. But domestically, BHO (or as he is sometimes known: "no drama Obama") has proven to be a poor political practitioner. Particularly after the drubbing the Democrats suffered in the 2010 congressional elections, Obama has been stymied by a very partisan and stubborn Congress. The true value of a president is how he politically maneuvers against that kind of opposition. And in this instance, Obama has been singularly inept and ineffective.
Now none of this argues that Romney is a superior choice. But given the drumbeat of radical Tea Party fervor rumbling through the Republican party, he is a classic "moderate" Republican, a former Massachusetts governor who is the author of the template for the Obama health care plan.
Instead, this will be an election decided by those voters (maybe 10-15% of the electorate) who broke slightly in Obama's favor in 2008 to give him the presidency. The 2012 election will be decided not over Mitt Romney's anemic campaign or his past business dealings. It will be decided on Barack Obama's record - specifically on "the economy, stupid." With unemployment at 8% and GDP growth at 2%, Obama would be pulling off an unprecedented electoral miracle were he to win in November. Can political lightning strike twice for Obama?
I was one of those voters who in 2008 had great reservations about Obama's inexperience and personal narrative. I would've preferred Joe Biden or Hilary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket. A lifelong Democrat, I decided fairly late in the game in 2008 to vote for Obama. I haven't made up my mind yet, though I suspect I will vote against my bet. But I am one of those undecided voters. To repeat, the campaign hasn't really begun. As of today, the electoral margins in Obama's favor are far from decisive.
I still think Obama is a one-term president.

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