American presidents usually win second terms, even if their parties suffer midterm blowouts. But President Barack Obama better not rely on history for a 2012 victory. To lift his political fortunes after Tuesday’s shellacking—and those of the U.S. economy—he needs to work with incoming Republicans to help create jobs and cut spending.
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both sailed to re-election despite suffering midterm setbacks, thanks to good growth and popular policies. When it’s one-and-done, as was the case with Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush senior in 1992, it’s often the economy that sent them packing. And that’s just the scary scenario emerging for Team Obama.
The White House’s own forecasts don’t predict unemployment dipping below an average of 8 percent until 2013. Even worse, some of the hardest hit states—Florida, Michigan and Ohio—are big ones in the Electoral College that Obama needs to win again if he’s going to score another four years in the job. And all three just may be about to elect Republican governors.
Obama could stay the course. He could battle the newcomers including their sizable Tea Party contingent, pray for a boom and continue to push his agenda, such as capping carbon emissions through regulatory agencies. Between that, his fundraising prowess and a so-so Republican presidential field, he might edge out a victory.
But voters say they want compromise. And there are deals Obama could potentially reach with Republicans that might generate jobs and reassure markets about America’s fiscal seriousness. Obama has already proposed letting businesses immediately deduct new capital investments. He could add cuts in corporate and payroll taxes and temporarily extend some or all of the expiring Bush tax cuts. In return, Obama could bargain for more infrastructure spending, especially if he agreed to suspend federal pay rules that raise the cost of government-funded construction projects.
But there might be even more opportunity on the spending side. In a bit of fiscal jujitsu, Obama could challenge the Tea Party folks to cut billions in corporate tax breaks and vote for any social insurance cuts recommended by his own deficit panel. And Obama must surely know that when advanced economies have reordered their fiscal houses by cutting spending, it’s often been under center-left governments able to pull a “Nixon to China” moment with interest groups.
It may not feel like it right now to the shell-shocked White House, but the Democratic election throttling might just help the president pivot to a second term.