From time to time until November 2012, I’ll be offering a snapshot of the emerging presidential race. This is the first. Here’s the headline: Given current national trends and a credible Republican nominee, the presidential election would be very, very close, and President Obama might even lose. The economic situation looks like it will not be good enough for the president to cruise to victory, yet it will not so bad that voters are in the mood to repudiate him. In such a situation, campaign tactics, branding, and the identity of the Republican nominee would likely determine the outcome of the election—and in that context, Obama’s aggressive pivot to the center, including his forthcoming speech on deficit reduction, could have a decisive effect on whether or not he wins a second term.
Of course, as the issues director of Walter F. Mondale’s presidential campaign from 1982 until the end, I’m better positioned than most to understand the limitations of such snapshots. At this point in 1983, President Reagan’s approval ratings were in the low forties, and several polls showed him and Mondale in a statistical dead heat. Eighteen months later, his ratings were in the high fifties, and he ended up with 59 percent of the vote. In the interim, of course, economic growth had surged, and the unemployment rate had fallen by 3 percentage points.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme. If economic growth averages 4 percent between now and November 2012, unemployment falls to 7.3 percent, and the real per capita income of average families grows by 3 percent, Obama will be the odds-on favorite for reelection against any Republican. Conversely, if growth languishes, unemployment remains close to its current level, and per capita income doesn’t improve perceptibly, Obama will probably lose to a credible Republican—especially if he also faces stubbornly high gas prices. But if the overall economic picture is between the best and worst case, which is what the consensus of economic forecasters now predicts, the election will be close, campaign themes and tactics will influence the outcome, and the identity of the Republican nominee will matter hugely.
Here’s what the numbers show right now, leading into Obama’s speech on long-term fiscal policy. His approval rating averages about 47 percent—not bad, but not good enough to prevail in the general election. A number of surveys indicate that more people like the president personally than like his policies. In the most recent Pew survey, for example, while 47 percent approved of his overall performance as president, his favorable rating on handling the economy was 39 percent; energy policy 40 percent; the budget deficit a woeful 33 percent. And remarkably, when it comes to the deficit, young voters aged 18 to 29—the cohort most favorably disposed to Obama—are even more critical, with only 29 percent approving.
When people are asked to think about Obama’s reelection in broad terms, additional evidence of potential vulnerability emerges. In recent months, a number of national surveys have posed similar versions of the question: Do you think Barack Obama has done well enough to deserve reelection, or would the country be better off with someone else? The “well enoughs” average about 43 percent; the “someone elses” 49 percent.
When framed in terms of head-to-head competition between the president and a generic Republican, Obama also appears vulnerable. In the 14 national surveys conducted over the past two months, Obama averages about 44 percent, the unnamed Republican about 41 percent. Seven of these surveys show the president in the lead, four give the challenger an edge, and three are tied.
Of all these surveys, the only one that gives Obama a significant advantage—47 percent to 37 percent—is Pew’s March 23 offering. This anomaly intrigued me, so I asked Pew to provide me some internal breakdowns: On ideology, their sample broke down 41 percent conservative, 35 percent moderate, 20 percent liberal—right in line with the national averages. Not surprisingly, the president enjoyed better than 80 percent support among liberals. But he was also favored in the Pew survey by 66 percent of the moderates who chose between Obama and a generic Republican, and by 33 percent of the conservatives. To put it mildly, these last two numbers are implausible leading indicators. Since 1976, no Democrat has received more than 62 percent of the two-party moderate vote, and only Jimmy Carter has gotten anywhere near 30 percent of conservatives. Bill Clinton received 22 percent of the two-party conservative vote in 1996; Obama got 20 percent in 2008. And given what has transpired since, he’d do well to equal that figure next time. Thirty-three percent? No way.
And what about head-to-head competition with specific Republicans? Four of them enjoy high enough name recognition to make comparisons meaningful, and they divide neatly into two groups. All the surveys show essentially the same thing: While Obama would beat Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich by double-digit margins, he’s in a statistical dead heat with both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.
Additionally, this must all be thought of in the context of the electoral college. For the reasons discussed in previous columns, I persist in my belief that traditionally pivotal swing states such as Florida and Ohio will continue to be decisive in 2012. During the past month, I’m aware of two credible surveys—by Quinnipiac and Public Policy Polling (PPP)—done in each of these states. Let’s take them in turn:
For Florida, Quinnipiac found Obama’s job approval at 47 percent (49 percent disapproval).When asked about Obama’s reelection, 45 percent said he deserved a second term versus 48 percent saying no; and 40 percent said they would vote for Obama compared to 42 percent for an unnamed challenger. While 70 percent of respondents said they like the president, only 41 percent like his policies. PPP showed Obama’s Florida approval rating at 48/47, Romney’s at 39/39, and Huckabee’s at 40/39. In head-to-head contests, he leads Romney 46 percent to 44 percent (well within the margin of error) and Huckabee by 50/43.
Looking at Ohio, Quinnipiac found the president’s job approval at 47 percent approval to 48 percent disapproval. Forty-five percent said he deserved a second term, with 46 percent saying no. Seventy-three percent of Ohioans like Obama personally, but only 44 percent like his policies. He led an unnamed Republican challenger by 41 to 34 percent, with fully 16 percent of all respondents (and 2 percent of independents) saying that it would depend on the identity of the Republican nominee. PPP found the president’s job approval at 47 percent, with 46 percent disapproving. Romney’s approval rating stands at 33/43, with 24 percent unsure; the breakdown for Huckabee is 36/42/22. Obama leads Romney by 46 to 40 percent, with 14 percent undecided; Huckabee trails by 48 to 41 percent, with 11 percent undecided.
In short, if the presidential election were held today, it would be hotly contested, and a credible Republican might prevail. So looking forward, much depends on the outcome of the Republican primaries. If the Republicans nominate someone who’s seen by the people as a plausible potential president, they’re going to be in the game unless the economy surges as it did in 1984. But they have two opportunities to commit creedal suicide: They could nominate someone too far outside the mainstream to compete effectively, as they did in 1964, or their primary electorate could force more mainstream aspirants to adopt positions that would cripple their general election chances.
Meanwhile, Obama and his team are clearly moving to shore up some of these weaknesses. The White House seems unwilling to wager Obama’s presidency on either a weak Republican nominee or an economy strong enough to moot the people’s other reservations about his performance. As such, it is beginning to unveil a general election strategy that appears to rest on the following components.
First, Obama will try to persuade the electorate (in particular, the Independents who deserted Democrats in droves last year) that he’s really the guy they thought they were voting for in 2008—the conciliator who puts partisanship and ideology aside to get things done. In that context, the lame-duck budget deal wasn’t a one-off, but rather a harbinger of things to come. That’s why the president gave more ground than many congressional Democrats liked to reach agreement on the 2011 budget, and why he now seems prepared to accept a linkage he had previously rejected between raising the debt ceiling and movement toward long-term fiscal restraint.
Second theme: Despite the expensive but necessary response to the economic emergency of 2008-2009, Obama’s not a big spender determined to expand the reach and cost of the federal government. He cares about getting deficits and debt under control, but unlike the Republicans, he wants to do it in a way that honors our values and builds our future. That’s why he has chosen to deliver a speech on long-term fiscal policy that seeks simultaneously to get him on the playing field while distinguishing his approach from that of Representative Ryan and the House Republicans.
Which brings us to the third building-block of the reelection effort. The 2011 State of the Union announced a theme—winning the future—that the Obama team seems to take seriously even if the commentariat doesn’t. The intention is to convey an optimistic vision of a better future that is within our grasp if we make the right investments. It also represents an effort to rebrand twenty-first century liberalism as looking forward rather than backward; as oriented toward growth and opportunity rather than redistribution and security. In that context, the president can be expected to defend tenaciously what he regards as key investments in the future—education, basic research, innovation, and infrastructure—against Republican attacks. The “winning the future” agenda would become Obama’s equivalent of the famous “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment” quarter that Bill Clinton used to draw the line against Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans in 1995.
For Obama, winning the future begins with winning the election. To understand his approach to Congress over the coming months, it will be extremely useful keep the White House’s reelection strategy in mind. The Obama campaign wants to be in the best possible position to seize the center of the electorate whenever the Republicans vacate it, and it is gearing most of its policy and messaging efforts toward that goal. Congressional liberals may not have much to cheer about in the 112th Congress, because Obama will be focusing on the steps needed to shore up his standing among moderate and independent voters. And, once we hear President Obama’s forthcoming speech on long-term fiscal policy, we will have an even clearer sense of the new balance that he wishes to strike between the concerns of his party’s base and the broader coalition that he forged in 2008 and needs to recreate for 2012.
This strategy comes with built-in risks. Obama could go too far and end up demobilizing a portion of the energized base he enjoyed in his first campaign. To maintain the balance between the center and left wings of his coalition, he will have to pick some selective but resonant fights with conservatives. He has a particular problem with Latinos, who were deeply disappointed by the administration’s failure to push hard for immigration reform during the 111th Congress. It would not be surprising if he chooses to revisit that issue no later than his 2012 State of the Union address; all the more so because Marco Rubio seems to be every potential Republican presidential nominee’s first choice for running mate.
The other problem with a regain-the-center strategy is that “winning the future” doesn’t do much for workers—especially older workers—who are losing the present. It’s not clear what, if anything, Obama could do for them that would make a concrete difference over the next 18 months. But at least in his rhetoric and campaign scheduling, he should be careful not to get so carried away with Reagan-style optimism as to appear out of touch with the suffering millions of Americans continue to endure. Today, we will see whether Obama can strike a tone that will keep the people by his side.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.
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