Amherst, MA – Will Obama be a lame duck president and join the likes of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter as incumbent presidents who were defeated at re-election?
There are ample grounds to think so. First, political scientists report that, when unemployment in the United States is above seven per cent, the incumbent president’s chances of re-election are slight. Since 2007, unemployment has exceeded eight per cent and the economy has been mired in the most severe and durable recession in more than half a century.
Evidence from recent European elections provides additional, indirect evidence that when the economy is faring badly, voters hold the incumbent government responsible. In every European country that has held elections recently – Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain – voters have replaced the incumbent government. (France may well join this list when presidential elections are held this April and May.)
And another excellent predictor of an incumbent president’s re-election prospects involves responses to the polling question: “Are things in this country generally going in the right direction, or have they pretty seriously gotten onto the wrong track?” A Time magazine poll last fall found that 81 per cent of respondents chose the pessimistic answer; only 14 per cent expressed the optimistic view.
Obama’s policies have generated a powerful backlash by cultural conservatives, white nativists, and the ultra-rich. His electoral prospects are further damaged because Republicans control most chambers within state legislatures: 57, to the Democrats’ 39, with the remainder lacking a clear partisan majority.
Since 2010, Republicans have tightened restrictions on voter eligibility in many states, a change that disproportionately affects Democratic supporters. Republican-controlled legislatures have also redrawn congressional district boundaries to maximise the party’s congressional prospects this November.
Evidence to the contrary
But despite all of this compelling evidence, Obama will still win the election when Americans head to the voting booths in November.
For one, Obama actually has good reasons for optimism on the economic front as voters consider not just the current level of economic performance but also economic trends. Because of that, the bad news of past years may be helpful for Obama, as even the smallest dose of good news can offset the bad.
And recently, there has been a modest increase in economic growth and improved job creation: 243,000 jobs were created in January 2012 – more than double the number predicted by most economists as the number of newly created jobs outstripped the growth of new job-seekers resulting from increased population for the first time in years. Unemployment has declined from 8.5 per cent to 8.3 per cent, the lowest level in three years. While a modestly improved economic climate will not constitute a strong case for Obama re-election, if these trends continue the president will be able to deny responsibility for presiding over a durable crisis.
Then, there are Obama’s personal qualities. Obama has a stable temperament and ability to inspire hope and support from large groups of Americans; he rarely stumbles or needs to clarify his positions. He conveys an impression of tranquillity, steadiness of purpose and presents a marked contrast to the agitated and awkward demeanour of Mitt Romney, the likely Republican candidate.
One way that voters subconsciously assess a candidate is whether they enjoy the prospect of inviting him or her into their home when they tune into the TV evening news. By this measure, Obama comes out way ahead of Romney.
Possibly because of his great wealth, Romney seems to lack warmth and empathy for common people. Examples are endless, including his boast that he enjoys firing people, his offer to make a $10,000 bet during a debate of Republican presidential hopefuls, and his remark that he doesn’t care about the very poor because they’re protected by the “safety net” provided by social programmes – never mind that poverty is at record high levels and that Romney’s fiscal policies would further weaken the safety net.
Romney’s tax returns further demonstrate his differences with most US voters. He reaps millions of dollars annually from low tax rates on dividends and capital gains – and from tax loopholes which enable him to shelter income and wealth in off-shore tax havens. Romney’s Republican rivals lament that Bain Capital, a private equity fund that he directed, exemplifies “vulture capitalism” because it buys failing companies at bargain basement prices, strips them of assets, and dismisses their workers.
Furthermore, Romney’s frequent shifts on important issues – abortion, gun control, and health care – suggest that he tailors his beliefs in response to how the political winds are blowing. For example, when serving as governor of Massachusetts, Romney sponsored a plan requiring residents to purchase healthcare insurance and providing subsidies for those with low-income. Obama and Romney’s Republican opponents delight in highlighting that the plan served as a model for Obama’s own health care reform – a reform vilified by Republicans (including Romney).
The electorate is tilting left
Obama’s chances of re-election are also significantly helped by the fact that the Democratic Party’s economic approach converges with that held by a plurality of those in the US. Right now, the electorate’s mood is somewhat left of centre.
Consider a public opinion poll in autumn 2011, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and NBC. Respondents were asked their opinion about two views: (a) “The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favours a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country;” (b) “The national debt must be cut significantly while reducing spending and the size of government… In addition, business regulations should be cut and taxes should not be raised.” The results: 60 per cent of respondents strongly supported the first option – nearly double the 33 per cent that strongly supported the second statement.
Other polls back up the notion that the electorate is tilting left. In early February ABC News and The Washington Post asked whether the current US tax system favours the middle class, the wealthy, or neither; 68 per cent of respondents replied that it favours the wealthy. Moreover, 72 per cent of respondents supported raising taxes on those in the US with incomes exceeding one million dollars a year. And a Pew Research Centre survey found that two-thirds of US voters believe that there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between rich and poor – an increase of 19 per cent since 2009. The poll also found that those in the US believe that the cleavage between rich and poor is an issue which is more important than racial, ethnic, and generational divisions.
The takeaway from these poll data is that the Democratic Party’s ideological position is more closely aligned with that of the US electorate than is the case for the Republican Party. This situation is quite recent. The 2010 congressional elections were dominated by a conservative social agenda, as well as by the Tea Party’s priorities of slashing federal spending to reduce the federal deficit and debt. The Republican Party was the vehicle for achieving these goals and the elections enabled the party to take control of the House of Representatives. In 2012, unemployment, poverty and inequality are dominant concerns – issues on which the Democratic Party historically has focused.
Compare President Obama’s State of the Union addresses in early 2011 and 2012. The former was decidedly more centrist. The New York Times headlined its story reporting Obama’s 2012 State of the Union speech, “In Address, Obama Makes Pitch for Economic Fairness.” His message for the financial and corporate sector: “No more bailouts, no more handouts, and no more copouts.”
The impact of Occupy
What explains the rapid transformation of the political agenda?
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has been an important catalyst. As the leader of the Working Families Party Daniel Cantor observed, OWS changed the focus of public attention “from austerity to inequality”. A trade union official noted: “In three months, this movement succeeded in shifting political discourse more than labour had been able to accomplish with years of lobbying and electoral campaigning.”
One indication of the impact of OWS: In the months prior to the emergence of OWS, about 400 newspaper articles were published each month in the US that contained the words “inequality” and “greed”. After October 2011, that number tripled.
Polls provide solid evidence of the widespread support enjoyed by OWS. In a Time magazine poll in October 2011, double the number of respondents supported OWS than opposed it. OWS tapped into widespread concerns previously neglected by the media and mainstream political leaders; its organisation enabled it to reach a wide audience. It is both a national phenomenon, eliciting nationwide news coverage of the nerve centres of the movement in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and a decentralised movement with an OWS presence in 1,400 medium and small cities throughout the country.
A final factor that bolsters the Democratic Party’s prospects relates to the internal dynamics of the two major parties. Both parties are divided into a centrist, mainstream faction – often called the “establishment” – and an extremist wing (the left flank of the Democratic Party, the right flank of the Republican Party).
However, the symmetry ends here, for the balance of power between the two wings is very different in the two parties, as is the extent of intra-party conflict. Because the Democratic Party’s left wing is quite weak and the Republican Party’s right wing is strong, the Democratic Party is more closely aligned with the bulk of the US electorate.
In the Democratic Party, the establishment (to which Obama and most party leaders belong) is overwhelmingly dominant. The left wing, for example, the Progressive Democrats of America, a grassroots PAC (political action committee) that operates within and outside the Democratic Party, is tiny.
While the party’s two factions have very different positions on civil liberties and economic policy, the establishment generally controls the party’ s issue agenda; more left-oriented groups are often critical of Obama and the party’s moderate-left positions, but their criticism is generally muted and restrained.
The Republican Party, by contrast, is deeply divided, and its contending factions are engaged in an intense battle for the soul of the party. Although the establishment there has the upper hand, it is fiercely challenged by a right-wing coalition of the Tea Party, the Christian Right, dogmatic neo-liberals, and ultra-rich economic conservatives.
The Republican presidential debates and primaries have been the battleground for this civil war, characterised by Republican supporter Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, as “mutually assured destruction“.
An important question is whether, once the Republican Party chooses its presidential nominee, voters will forget that it was the party’s own presidential contenders, not the Democrats, who called each other liars, lobbyists, tax evaders, and hypocrites.
Romney belongs par excellence to the establishment, one reason for the desperate – and thus far unsuccessful – attempt by the hard-right to find a credible alternative to him. In his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, Romney appealed to the ultra-right. This year, he has both highlighted his solidly conservative credentials and emphasised his successful business career. Assuming that he becomes the Republican nominee, he will be faced with an inescapable dilemma. If he tries to distance himself from the party’s right wing, his ultra-conservative positions in the debates will come back to haunt him.
However, if he embraces those positions, he will alienate centrists in the electorate. In brief, he risks being regarded by both wings of the party as a flip-flopper. Of course, an Obama victory hinges on the assumption that there will be no unpleasant surprises before the November election, such as an attack on Iran or the implosion of the eurozone.
As one historian has wisely noted: It’s far easier to explain the past than to predict the future. But, barring major disasters, expect Obama to avoid Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter’s fate this November, and to enjoy four more years residing at the world’s most famous address.
Mark Kesselman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Columbia University and Editor of the International Political Science Review. He has published books and articles on West European and American politics and political economy.