Forecasting for 2012: Obama’s odds

The perils of making long term pronouncements based on short term trends were never clearer than in December 2010. At the month’s opening, many among the Chattering Class were still reacting to the apocalyptic Democratic losses in the midterm elections by writing President Obama’s political obituary. The generally agreed prognosis for the President was so grim that there was speculation about a Democratic primary challenger emerging against Obama, and the question in the minds of the punditry was not whether the Democratic agenda could proceed, but how much of the 111th Congress’s initiatives would be undone by the 112th.

What a difference a month makes. Now, as the new year dawns, the President is resurgent. Big victories during the lame duck session, news of an improving economy and a Christmas season without incendiary underwear bolstered a revitalized Administration that seems ready to go toe-to-toe with John Boehner’s House.

However, November 2012 is a very long way off, so the best that can be done is to present the major factors (as they stand today) in the 2012 election, and weigh them out to see if President Obama will be the new Jimmy Carter or the new Ronald Reagan – though only Ronald Reagan had lower approval ratings at this point in his presidency than Barack Obama.

The Economy

It is unlikely that any other single issue will be as important to 2012 voters as the state of the American economy, so the question is this: How low does the unemployment rate have to drop for the White House to signal success, and will it get there? Sinking under 9 percent would be an excellent start, but for Obama to be able to turn an albatross into an asset, the low 8 percent range is a better target. It is possible but unlikely it will fall that far, so Obama would be wise to avoid the mistake he made at the outset of his presidency and start setting realistic expectations now… and make sure he exceeds them by September of 2012.

Investigations

To most Americans, Darrell Issa is an unknown. To this native Californian, he is infamous as the man who engineered the recall against former Gov. Gray Davis, expecting to be the de facto choice for his replacement before Ahnold bid Issa’s dreams an “hasta la vista.”

Issa is now chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which gives him nearly limitless powers to investigate and subpoena anyone and everyone connected with the Administration’s agenda – and he will use it. Make no mistake, Issa’s committee has one goal and one goal only: embarrass the President and lay the groundwork for impeachment. Republicans often state that Obama is the “worst president ever,” and given the Tea Party’s tenuous-to-nonexistent grasp of history, many probably believe it. Though the prospect of getting articles of impeachment to pass the House is dim, even with the Tea Party crop of congressmen eager to add their “aye” to such a bill sight unseen, Issa has the capability to keep a steady stream of allegations in the news for the next two years. Much will depend on how the Administration prepares and executes a strategy to neutralize Issa and his committee.

Party Unity

Though the wisdom of Will Rogers’s quote about Democratic disorganization is perennially reaffirmed, the next two years might mark an exception. Perhaps the only positive result of the Democratic “shellacking” is that the ax fell heaviest on the necks of Blue Dog Democrats, making for a far more ideologically unified Democratic caucus in the 112th Congress. Democrats, and Obama in particular, are never so effective as when they are underdogs. Even if this is not strictly the case (Dems still hold the Senate and White House), it is the popular perception among the people and the pundits alike. This creates a powerful incentive for Democrats to hang together (or hang separately, props to Ben Franklin) and do what they seem intrinsically incapable of doing when they are in power: stay on message.

The Republicans have a tougher row to hoe. While the enthusiasm and novelty of the Tea Party bolstered their share of the electorate in 2010, Republicans now in effect have two separate caucuses to hold together, and there is little love lost between them. Establishment Republicans lost friends to the Tea Party, and many of them had to put in a lot of work to fend off intra-party challenges from the extreme right. Those wounds cannot have all healed, and more fundamentally, the dynamic sets up possible showdowns between entrenched Republican lawmakers who have been government employees for quite a while, and Tea Party neophytes who have little interest in the effective use of federal power and campaigned on, essentially, not governing. Whether the traditional Republicans or the Tea Party rookies will lead the debate is up in the air (I favor the old guard in that fight), but either way, Boehner will have his hands full sorting it all out.

And then, of course, there is the Republican presidential primary…

Republican Presidential Primary

If it was ever in doubt (which it really wasn’t), the lame duck session victories made it certain that Obama will once again top the Democratic ticket. Who the Republicans pick to lead theirs will be important, but perhaps more important will be how acrimonious the 2012 GOP primary gets. The current presumed contenders have their strengths and weaknesses as general election candidates (for my money, and according to polls, the weaknesses outnumber the strengths), but a number of them share a common trait: viciousness. I am still not convinced that Sarah Palin will stay in the primary hunt if it looks like she’ll get her clock cleaned in the early states, but Palinesque political assaults on fellow Republicans are a near certainty, regardless of who emerges as front runner. If played correctly, this can generate attention and excitement for the eventual GOP nominee without crippling him or her in the general. More likely, though, it will be a bloodbath. I have my fingers crossed that we will see Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich take the gloves off against each other and their fellow contenders. It will make for good television if nothing else.

Foreign Policy

Since my crystal ball is on the fritz, I am left with too many “unknown unknowns” to prognosticate on how this will affect Obama’s reelection prospects. However, some issues will certainly play a major role, Afghanistan and Israel topping the list. Both of those troubled regions contain enormous potential to either bolster or hinder Obama’s chances, though the pitfalls are more potent than the advantages. Sticking to the Afghanistan withdrawal timetable without plunging that nation into turmoil, and moving the peace ball forward in Israel without pissing off American Jews, will shore up Obama’s foreign policy credibility, but a major disaster in either area will make his reelection considerably more difficult.

Additionally, the potential for war on the Korean peninsula or military action against Iran is currently looming and may continue to be present for quite some time. History suggests that either event (depending on the magnitude and consequences) will give Obama a leg up in the election, but George H.W. Bush can tell you that history isn’t always right about that.

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