FDR was re-elected in 1936 and the economy was in a very bad way — far, far worse than it is today or likely to be in November 2012.
That’s the good news for President Obama. The bad news is that FDR is the only president in the last 75 years to be re-elected when the economy was in bad shape and unemployment was over 8 percent. And if the economy doesn’t get a lot better soon, if unemployment doesn’t fall significantly by November 2012, Barack Obama may very well be a one-and-out president who made it on charm the first time around but now has a crummy record hanging around his neck.
But for Republicans, this may be nothing more than wishful thinking masquerading as political analysis. After all, sitting presidents usually win re-election. Since 1936, 11 incumbent presidents have run for a second term and only three were defeated – Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
And, like FDR, Barack Obama has something else going for him – an intangible that may compensate for bad economic news: likeability — an essential characteristic for anyone hoping to do well in politics.
Except for his enemies – and that’s not too strong a word if you’ve ever listened to his most passionate detractors — Americans generally like Barack Obama, even when they disagree with him on matters of policy.
They like his smile, they like the way he talks, they like the way he dresses and carries himself, and yes, they like the fact that he is the first black man elected president of the United States of America. In some ways, it is a source of national pride.
Consider these four things that set President Obama apart from his likely Republican challengers: he’s young, he’s cool, he’s black and he’s liberal. Those traits, as much as anything else, I believe, got him elected the first time around. The Obama magic could not have centered on his politics. He was a first term senator with no discernible record. A respected magazine – National Journal – said he was the most liberal member of the Senate. In a center-right country, that’s not a plus.
Still he won. And in early polls – despite the fact that Americans are not enamored by his politics – President Obama beats potential Republican nominees just about every time. So what’s going on?
Republicans come off like stiffs, that’s what’s going on. Whatever they are, they are not cool. And when they (rightly) focus on deficit reduction and spending cuts – as conservative scholar Shelby Steele recently noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed — “they can be made to look like a gaggle of scolding accountants.”
And who wants to vote for a scolding accountant?
In other words, Barack Obama is tomorrow; all those white, male Republicans come off as yesterday. We’ve seen people who look like them before. The juxtaposition beat McCain in 2008. Obama and his team are betting it will happen again in 2012.
“The point is that anyone who runs against Mr. Obama will be seen through the filter of this racial impressionism, in which white skin is redundant and dark skin is fresh and exceptional,” says Steele. “This is the new cultural charisma that the president has introduced into American politics.”
Charisma goes a long way in politics, especially when it’s up against scolding accountants. So what to do if you’re a Republican with dreams of becoming president? Turn President Obama into the candidate of yesterday. Tell the American people that Mr. Obama represents everything tired and old in American politics. Tell them that capturing bin Laden was great and being the first black American president is historic, but it’s not enough, not anymore – not after he shoved ObamaCare down the throats of the American people, not after he spent nearly a trillion dollars on a stimulus package with questionable results, not after his worldwide tour apologizing for America’s supposed sins, and not after his failure to deliver on his promise to usher in a new tone and new politics in Washington.
Tell them the Republicans are the candidate with new ideas while Mr. Obama hasn’t had a new idea, maybe ever. And tell them, as Shelby Steele smartly points out, that “Barack Obama believes in government; we believe in you.”
President Obama’s base – the so-called mainstream media – will do everything it can to get him re-elected. Last time around they weren’t content being eye-witnesses and chroniclers of history. Last time around they were intent on helping shape history. After all, this wasn’t just one more Mondale or Dukakis or Gore or Kerry running for president. So they have a lot invested in this president. The good news for Republicans is that the American people understand all this. Having the lamestreams on your side helps. But if the Republicans play their cards right, it won’t help enough.