Sunday, July 15, 2012

Maybe It WON'T Be About the Economy Stupid

Ronald Reagan ran on it; Bill Clinton drove it home like no one before him.  Indeed every pollster agrees – both Democrat and Republican – the top three issues voters will be focused on this fall are jobs, jobs and (what was that third one?) jobs. 

So, as a famous comic villain might say, riddle me this.  If the economy is the dominant issue driving the electorate, why is Barack Obama tied or slightly ahead of Mitt Romney in virtually every poll with four months to go before the general election?   If history is to be believed, then, by all rights, the President should be trailing badly in those same polls.  Certainly other first-term presidents felt the sting of sluggish economies that ultimately led to their defeat.

But, unlike Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, this president has proven far more resilient than even his harshest detractors could have predicted. Like the fabled story of the Three Little Pigs, no matter how hard they huff and puff, they can’t blow his house down.  This has thoroughly frustrated Republicans who were hoping to capitalize on a weak recovery that has seen unemployment remain above eight percent for most of the last four years.  And yet, even with the economy in such dire straits, if the election were held today, Barack Obama would prevail, albeit by the narrowest of margins.  No president since FDR has pulled off such a feat. 

How can this be?  In my opinion it comes down to three factors: personal likability, gross incompetence and resignation.

Let’s start with the first.  With the obvious exception of the wingnuts on the Right, who have made their feelings towards this president all too plain, his personal likability remains remarkably high.  Even those likely voters who feel the country is on the wrong track like the guy.  Indeed, the more personal the attacks from the Right become, the more sympathy Obama seems to garner from the general public.  He has become, for all intents and purposes, the Teflon president.

While likability doesn’t always save a vulnerable president, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Indeed in a tightly-contested race it can often prove to be the deciding factor.  The 1960 election bore this out.  Despite having the superior resume, Richard Nixon was not well liked by the electorate and a young and charismatic John F. Kennedy beat him in one of the closest elections in American history. Kennedy edged out Nixon in the popular vote by a mere .2%.

Then there’s the issue of gross competence.  There’s no getting around it.  The Republican Party of today bears little resemblance to the Republican Party of even a generation ago.  Who would’ve thought that Ronald Reagan – the president who gave us supply-side economics – would be viewed as a moderate in today’s GOP?  That’s how far to the right the party has drifted and, while the base has certainly become re-energized this election cycle, independent voters remain skeptical about the motives of the Tea Party.  Even those who self-identify as conservative have expressed reservations about whether the Republicans are up to the challenge of leading the country forward.  Last year’s debt-ceiling fiasco left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.

The simple truth is that ideology, while good theater for both ends of the political spectrum, isn’t the motivating force behind most moderate and independent voters.  More often than not it comes down to who looks more presidential.  Ironically, the more ginned up the Right gets, the less attractive they look to the electorate.  Obama has capitalized on this point by behaving like the adult in a classroom full of juvenile delinquents.  The more they act up, the better he comes across.

Of course the fact that Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee hasn’t exactly been the boost the GOP was looking for.  So far, the Party’s most “electable” candidate has been a dud.  He hasn’t connected with voters the way he needs to and even his most ardent supporters have been highly critical of what they view as a sloppy and highly undisciplined campaign.  A recent op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal all but threw him under the bus.  No matter how hard he tries to sound genuine, he comes across as someone who would say or do anything to get elected and that hardly ever plays well with the electorate.

But now we come to the strangest factor of all: resignation.  The simple truth is that many voters are starting to come to grips with a staggering reality.  No matter who wins in November, the likelihood is that unemployment will remain high for quite some time.  Systemic issues within the American and global economies do not bode well for the prospects of a dramatic turnaround anytime soon.  Like it or not, it could take years before we see unemployment dip below six percent, let alone five.

And while you may think that spells trouble for the incumbent, the truth is that in such political climates voters sometimes opt to stay the course.  It’s the old “the devil you know” syndrome and, while that may not sound like a ringing endorsement of the President, it just might end up being his best friend.  The painful truth for Republicans is that most voters know the recession started before Obama took office.  Attempts to frame this as Obama’s recession haven’t paid the dividends they’d hoped for. 

Then there’s the fact that Romney still hasn’t made the case for how and why he would be better, which has had the unintended consequence of helping, not hurting the President.  If you can’t lay out a clear vision for why you should get the job, it’s pretty hard to convince voters you deserve the job.  Indeed, Romney appears to be borrowing a page from the John Kerry playbook by playing it safe and banking on voter dissatisfaction with Obama as his ticket to victory.  

There’s just one tiny flaw in Romney’s logic.  Obama isn’t George Bush.  By 2004, voters were starting to become wary of both the Iraq War and of Bush’s leadership ability.  Pundits were predicting his defeat.  Yet, even with the political tides starting to turn against him, Bush still beat Kerry.  The “vote for me, I’m not him” strategy failed miserably.  Why on earth Romney would choose that same strategy against a president who is considerably more popular is beyond belief, but that appears to be the case.

Of course all this is pure speculation.  In the end it may well come down to the economy after all, and whether it’s fair or not, the fact remains that President Obama is presiding over the worst economy since FDR.  True, his policies may have mitigated what could’ve been another Great Depression, but that may not be enough to save him.  And while it’s also true he didn’t create the mess, the fact remains that it’s his mess now.

Being popular and likable is certainly desirable.  But let’s not forget that George Bush got reelected in ’04 and he was hardly Mr. Congeniality.  The bottom line, more often than not, ends up being the determinant factor in most elections.  If enough voters feel that Obama is worthy of a second term, they will give him one; if not, they will give Mitt Romney a crack at running the show. 

Like it or not, it is that simple.

1 comment:

Peter Fegan said...

With respect to the '04 election, I stated that Bush "handily" beat Kerry. In reality, Bush won by 35 electoral votes. Ohio's 20 votes ended up determining the election. I have corrected the piece to reflect this.